Thursday, June 4, 2015

Forward goes Backward

UPDATE: This is an evolving situation; I'll post news links at the very bottom as I become aware of them.

If you've been paying attention to the news of academia lately, you can't have help but think that a handful of state governors (most of whom, not coincidentally, are potential or declared presidential candidates) are actively competing to see who can dismantle their state's higher education system most quickly and thoroughly. I'm fortunate that I'm teaching in a state that, while hit hard by the economic downturn (no raises or COLAs for 6 years; furloughs, mass lecturer layoffs), is climbing out of the abyss and currently has a governor who is throwing resources at public education at all levels. But we're kind of the exception.

Close to my heart is Wisconsin. I spent a truly wonderful year at UW in Madison, back when this blog started. I might have been able to finish my book without the resources and scholarly collaboration that that year provided, but it never would have been as good a book as it turned out to be. While there, I got to know the fantastic folks of Wisconsin, learned about the state's tradition of quietly progressive politics, and I even got to meet Russ Feingold. I learned the possibly apocryphal fact that the ass of the badger seated atop the head of "Forward," the female personification of the Badger State spirit, is the highest point in the state.

Something totally cool about higher ed in Wisconsin: the "Wisconsin Idea": a progressive-era ideal that the state should be the laboratory for democracy. When it comes to higher ed, they put it simply: "The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state." And the protection of tenure was actually written into state law. Holy moly: now that's a commitment to partnership.

I kept following Wisconsin after I left, and grew progressively more dismayed. Feingold was voted out as senator and Walker was voted in as governor. He quickly moved to crush the unions, despite weeks of heroic protests and sit-ins -- a fact that he actually plays up in his "I may or may not be running for president" stump speeches. Early this year, he attempted to remove a key phrase from the Wisconsin Idea: "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth." The university was for "workforce development," not "truth."

But this week, it moved from the realm of theoretical offense to the pursuit of knowledge to a gloves-off assault on the pesky educators standing in his way. First, the Walker government proposed law that would allow K-12 classes to be taught by people without a bachelor's degree or even a high school diploma -- all they'd need is "relevant experience." Then, the state government inserted language into the budget that allowed it to remove tenured faculty without cause in case of "financial necessity" (and no, they don't define this phrase). And today, the UW board of regents (most of them Walker appointees) just went along with it.

TL;DR: your teachers don't need to be accredited; your university profs can be fired at any moment; the "search for truth" can go fuck itself.

Oh, Forward. If only I had the power to animate you and your badger, so you could climb down from that dome. You look like you could kick some ass.

On, Wisconsin.

updates/link-y goodness:


Historiann said...

It's appalling. I followed the debate there yesterday & today with great interest but alas, little hope.

Contingent Cassandra said...

As usual when reading such stories, I find myself of two minds:

(1)This is horrible, and horribly alarming. Tenure is needed more than ever, so that at least some faculty have the freedom to say unpopular things, not only about issues outside the university, but also (perhaps especially) about what is and isn't working inside the university.

(2) While this sort of effort to dismantle tenure is highly visible, and thus highly alarming, tenure has already, for all intents and purposes, been dismantled, largely from within, and largely with the consent (tacit if not active) of tenured faculty. When 70% of the faculty, give or take, don't have tenure or any hope of tenure, then the power of tenure is already significantly diminished (and this sort of thing may, in part, be an effect, or at least part of the same larger phenomenon).

I have enough tenured colleagues who are making good use of their academic freedom to push for improvement inside the university that I incline mostly to view #1, but I do sometimes wonder whether doing so is an example of false consciousness.

Good Enough Woman said...

As a side note, I am struck by the fact that this so-called conservative governor is not being very conservative. First, he's is making fast, radical changes--actions which are not in keeping with key (historical) tenets of "conservative" politics. Second, all of his talk about educating workers for the state seems so *Soviet*. Tax dollars can only be used to educate us for a workforce that benefits the state. Um, hello, fascism? Am I wrong about this?

What Walker is doing to Wisconsin is devastating. I think his actions could very well ruin the UW system (in comparison to what it has always been). It will be a costly lesson for other "conservatives" to learn. My hope is that the negative consequences of these anti-liberal arts, anti-intellectual actions (and I feel certain there will be some) will serve to remind us about the value of a liberal and varied education for the citizenry.

Dr. Dad, PhD said...

I'm originally from a state that neighbors Wisconsin and I can't believe what they have done to mess up their higher education system.

Sadly, it only adds to my fear of continuing down the academic career path to see such a progressive system dismantled so ruthlessly...