An Open Letter to the University of Wisconsin – Madison Faculty Senate


Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you in my role as a fellow member of the UW-Madison faculty and not in my role as President of the local AAUP chapter. Our chapter is engaged in an ongoing, vigorous and respectful debate about the merits and risks of voting “No Confidence” in UW-System leadership. Eloquent and well-reasoned arguments have been made both for and against. However, two clear themes have emerged from our discussion, and I would like to share them with you.

First, not a single member expressed that they are confident in President Cross or the majority of the Board of Regents’ ability (or desire) to protect UW System from continued budget cuts, program closures and faculty layoffs for reasons unrelated to educational quality. In fact, nearly all of us agree that they are at best complicit with our current state government’s desire to redefine the Wisconsin Idea as primarily a workforce training mission, and at worst actively engaged.

I would encourage all of you to watch and listen to President Cross and the majority of Regents arguing strongly against faculty-endorsed amendments to UW System’s new layoff policy that would have included protective language similar to our strongest peers, such as the University of Michigan. Faculty amendments are introduced at 16:52. The relevant debate over faculty amendments begins at 1:03:48 and lasts for about an hour. I recommend listening to the debate in its entirety because it gives the opportunity to contrast the language of the five Regents who supported the faculty amendments (Evers, Bradley, Vasquez, Pruitt and Manydeeds) from the eleven who opposed them. If you are pressed for time, I would call your attention to the following timepoints:

  • 1:04:33 Regent Vice-President Behling and System General Counsel Tomas Stafford on why requiring alternatives to layoff to be “pursued” (instead of merely “considered”) would deny chancellors the “flexibility” needed to deal with budget cuts.
  • 1:21:58 Regent Vice-President Behling on how an amendment requiring program closures to focus primarily on educational considerations (language in University of Michigan’s layoff policy) would prevent chancellors from having the “flexibility, flexibility, flexibility” they need to “get through tough economic times.”
  • 1:26:30 System President Ray Cross arguing that campuses will have flexibility in determining their own policy and that he hopes UW-Madison’s proposed policy (passed by the Senate in November) would pass. Of course, the Board of Regents went on to make significant amendments at its meeting last month, overruling the expressed sentiments of the Faculty Senate.
  • 1:29:22 Regent Margaret Farrow comparing our activities to making “widgets” and at 1:30:44 proclaiming “Welcome to the 21st Century!”
  • 1:44:23 Regent President Regina Millner arguing that chancellors need flexibility to make certain “critical decisions” because faculty do not always understand the needs of the institution to have financial stability. Remember – this is a policy about program closure and layoff.
  • 1:53:31 System President Ray Cross again emphasizing the broad nature of the policy to allow campuses the ability to draft their own policy. Also arguing that “financial issues” are inseparable from educational considerations.

This brings me to the second broad theme that has emerged. Despite near-unanimous inability to express confidence in our leadership, many of us are afraid that expressing that lack of confidence could bring harm to the university. State legislators have already publicly threatened us with further cuts and reforms after simply announcing the upcoming vote.

Taken together, these themes lead me to ask a very important question. If nearly all of us conclude that our leadership is failing, but we allow fear of reprisal to suppress our expression of that finding, then haven’t we already lost our academic freedom? If fear of the Board of Regents, the Legislature and the Governor stops us from exercising our responsibility in governance, then I am afraid we really have lost. What’s next? Will we allow fear to change what we teach or research or say in public?

I believe that the cumulative effects of austerity are really beginning to be felt deeply across the UW System. News articles are emerging from around the state that students aren’t able to get classes to graduate on time, that the classes they can get into are bigger and less personalized, that advising and other student services have been cut to the bone. President Cross, the Board of Regents and the State Legislature have made clear (no whining!) that they do not want that message out in the public. They do not want the citizens of the state to realize that the quality of our students’ education and our ability to attract and retain the highest caliber scholars and scientists has suffered under their policies.

I would simply ask you to engage in the debate on Monday and vote your conscience. Whether or not you are confident in President Cross and the Board of Regents, in the true spirit of sifting and winnowing, we need to hear your voice and have your honest vote. If at the conclusion of the debate, you find yourself lack confidence in our leadership, I would ask only one thing: be fearless. That’s the way by which alone the truth can be found.



Dave Vanness

Associate Professor of Population Health Sciences



3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the University of Wisconsin – Madison Faculty Senate

  1. Thank you, Professor Vanness, for your brave and wholly justified condemnation of the “leadership” of higher education in the state of Wisconsin. As a UW alumnus and academic myself (I teach at Bowie State University in Maryland), I am appalled by the attacks on higher ed in Wisconsin by the Walker administration and it proxies and I encourage faculty in the UW system to unite in resisting this wholesale dismantling of a truly great institution by undermining those who make it so: the faculty. This so-called business model of education is nothing more than an attempt to reduce education to mere training to keep the wheels of commerce running, but always at the expense of political consciousness and cultural awareness. Administrators who propose layoffs (yes, let’s call them what they are–stop calling them “retrenchment policies”!) use only the metrics of the marketplace to make their decisions, not really giving a damn about the type of education necessary for a participatory democracy. This top-down managerial style has nothing to do with true shared governance, however much the BOR and others pay lip service to this requirement for the legitimacy of the decision-making process. “Flexibility” is just code for “power”; and it’s not a very subtle code at that. Vanness is right on the money when he observes that academic freedom is in peril. It is a foregone conclusion that the overlords of higher ed in Wisconsin have absolutely no interest in the necessary dialogue required by shared governance since the language by which they propose to codify their power grab is a transparent attempt to preclude any real checks and balances. How can one have confidence in any leadership whose intent is to disenfranchise and disempower its constituents?

    We are encountering some of the same problems here in Maryland and at my home institution, and obviously, we all need to take a stand against the silencing of the voice of faculty and the erosion of academic freedom. Professor Vanness, thank you again, and I and many of my colleagues encourage you in your proposed vote of no confidence in a feckless and reckless higher ed managerial class in the state of Wisconsin.


    Dr. David Kaloustian

  2. Pingback: An Open Letter to the University of Wisconsin – Madison Faculty Senate | REMAKING THE UNIVERSITY

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