Open Letter to My Colleagues at UW Madison

Nan Enstad UW Madison

When I first arrived at UW Madison fourteen years ago, the renowned history professor emeritus (now deceased), Gerda Lerner, said to me in her thick, Austrian accent, “UW Madison is a world-class university. Into any field you venture, any new project you take on, you will find that there is a national or global expert on that topic here on campus. It is an extraordinarily creative place that will nurture your scholarly growth no matter what direction you turn.”

Gerda would be horrified to know that the UW system is now under attack by our own state government, which is seemingly intent on jeopardizing one of its greatest assets. How do we move to protect UW?

Many of us hope that we can trust Chancellor Rebecca Blank to defend the public institution that she now steers into the future. Her statements on tenure, though, are contradictory. We scrutinize those statements and ask questions. Did she leak her recent email to Regent John Behling herself in order to convey to us her advocacy? Does her later conciliatory statement indicate capitulation to Cross? Did she intentionally lie at the recent Faculty Senate meeting about Cross consulting with the AAUP, or did she believe her erroneous statement? Is she on our side or are we being played?

The question of whether Becky Blank is on our side is the wrong question. Dwelling on it will cause us to squander our two best assets: UW Madison’s ties to the UW system and our collective abilities to change the conversation about public universities.

Changing the conversation means finding the bigger message that is not just about us…because this truly isn’t just about us. We need to seize control of the discourse and get out of an entrenched defensive position. The larger struggle we are in is about democratic access to public education for Wisconsin students and freedom of inquiry in a democratic society.

The Wisconsin legislature is not interested in getting rid of tenure because members believe that we should not have a “job for life” when others do not: that is spin. It is their best sound bite, likely worked up in some private university or think tank meeting room. They are not worried about whether our post-tenure review policies are transparent or fair. That is our fantasy. The rightwing members of the legislature, friends of the Koch brothers, are interested in the removal of tenure because tenure is an entrenched legality that stands between them and the restructuring of the university system.

We have seen the success of similar campaigns at making your child’s second grade teacher look like an over-privileged leech on the state coffers. The point was not whether the teacher deserved what they had. The point was that a decoy could deflect attention from the agenda of destabilizing a successful public school system so it could be privatized. We need a stronger message about tenure that shows the links between a strong university, rooted in faculty governance and freedom of inquiry, to the wellbeing of Wisconsin students making their way in a tough economy. If we let tenure become the decoy and focus only on that, we are likely to lose the larger battle and with it, the tenure battle as well.

Just how do we do change the terms of this discourse? It is a big task, but the answers are in our hands, not in Becky Blank’s email account. Is there a need to change the public conversation? We have people who study that topic in political science, rhetoric and journalism. Need to understand how to create buzz? We have experts in strategic communication. Want to understand how social movements work? I know professors in multiple disciplines who teach and write on just this question. How important is free inquiry to scientific inquiry? We have legions of scientists and medical researchers engaged in life and planet saving work that can testify on this matter. Our teaching, service and research won’t wait, but the cause of public education in Wisconsin and the United States is worth our time.

For this reason, too, we at UW Madison need to work in concert with our colleagues in the rest of the UW system; indeed, to succeed, we need them as much or more than they need us. Why? Because if our best chance is to make an argument about the value of the university to the Wisconsin public, then the fact that UW schools serve the public across the Wisconsin landscape is our biggest asset. We at UW Madison are vulnerable to every charge of elitism and privilege, but together with our colleagues across the UW System we provide an indispensible service—at excellent quality—to a vast number of people in Wisconsin.

We also need the insight and experience of our UW System colleagues, for they know Milwaukee, Green Bay, Whitewater, Superior, Stevens Point, Oshkosh, LaCrosse, and many more towns—they know the public we need to reach in a way that we cannot. They serve students that we do not. Operating together, they make us more relevant and meaningful; they can make us a good bit smarter about strategy, and they bring their own academic expertise. It is dangerously wrong headed to buy into the idea that they will drag us down, a view I’ve heard expressed more than once. “Divide and conquer” is a known strategy of this state government.

Please join the AAUP. (Michael Berube explains why here; the national AAUP’s recent statement on UW is here.) The Madison chapter of the AAUP worked with the University Committee to create a strong local policy. Even if the Board of Regents rejects our wording, articulating and fighting for our standards is critical. THe AAUP continues to do valiant work on policy documents, such as the proposed post-tenure review policy, and those doing it deserve our endless thanks. Relying only on this work, though, would be a mistake. An influx of members into the local AAUP chapter would allow the organization to coordinate other powerful interventions into the public debate at UW Madison and in concert with AFT and other UW-system AAUP branches.

When Professor Gerda Lerner praised UW to me, she spoke with knowledge of devastation and loss. Born into a middle class Jewish family in Vienna, she had worked briefly in the anti-fascist opposition before she fled Nazis, ultimately finding her way to the United States. Here she worked for social justice issues and raised children for many years before completing her college education and pursuing a PhD. At UW, she was fiercely good at getting resources out of reluctant administrators; given what she had seen, they simply could not scare her. Sometimes when I am faced with challenges in this job I ask myself, what would Gerda do (WWGD)? I did so after the recent Madison faculty senate meeting and the answer that came to me was clear and swift: Fight together, with the largest possible democratic vision, for the future of the public university.