A Pyrrhic Victory

by Nerissa Nelson – Librarian/Professor

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

My campus, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has had a tumultuous year of dealing with a budget deficit of $8 million over the next three years. It started as an announced administrative “document/plan” to cut 13 liberal arts majors, followed by a “reduced plan” to cut six majors and tenured faculty, and then ultimately a “pulled-back plan” not to cut those majors or layoff tenured faculty. All of this on top of an unplanned merger with two of the UW Colleges back in October 2017.

The recent news that nothing would be cut is being extolled as a victory for UWSP faculty and staff. But it comes at a great cost: the pain of the past year is not being covered in the media. The great cost is in those who have resigned, retired (with an emphasis on how retiring would help the campus in this budget crisis – good will exploited by administration), were not retained, or have been let go. Right now, the campus is going through requests for proposals to see which entities on campus may be outsourced, such as Dining Services or the University Store/Bookstore. Outsourcing, in turn, will likely result in the further attrition of the UWSP community and privatizing services.

Our campus does not have a true comprehensive plan. The administration forms committees, conducts siloed conversations within certain colleges, hires consulting firms that use a “play book” to save money when they often do not understand the complexities and politics of the organization they are working for, gathers data that seems to be inaccurate, deficient, or inconsistent, fails to build consensus, and, strangely, introduces “campus conversations” through the media. Put these things together and you leave a campus feeling unsteady. More than unsteady. Rather unstable. And angry. Or rather furious.

There is a lot of pain here. Pain that has destroyed the livelihoods of many. Pain that is the human cost of those who left because they could not afford to have their families be put through the “not knowing” if they would be fired or their program eliminated. Many relocated here, committed to the campus, and established roots in this place. Many considered UWSP their permanent home. The pain of what became a “divide and conquer” mode of operation where people started fighting for survival of their departments, undermined our collective voice. Dividing and conquering broke many friendships. The difference between personal and professional criticism became blurred. These experiences caused physical and mental pain for some. The pain of seeing years of hard work and study in a discipline you feel passionate about being stripped away as history or philosophy or art had no purpose for the “21st century university where we need to innovate.”

People deal with pain differently. Some may put on their boxing gloves and are ready to fight at all costs. Others must step back because they cannot manage to fight while trying to teach, parent, or deal with personal issues (cancer, death of parents, ill relatives). Some choose to not be involved, while others are legitimately afraid to speak out. It can also create a strange pattern of internal communication when you refer to a policy, such as the UW Board of Regents Policy 20-24 where tenured faculty can be laid off due to program elimination, and where Stevens Point was the first test case, and some faculty had never heard of the policy before, even while we were knee-deep in it.

The hours faculty and staff put into committees this past year attending to this crisis could have been put into their teaching and research in what was likely thousands of people hours. Doing this work is frustrating, because the results are rarely fully heard by administration. There was never a response to reports, proposals, or recommendations that were put forth. We felt essentially ignored while simultaneously being told by administration that they had “robust conversations with departments.”

There is no “hard evidence” to prove that all our work had any effect on the outcome of what the administration has now proposed – to retain the majors and not layoff tenured faculty. The “victory” is that the mounting pressure from these groups, faculty, staff, students, the media, and professional associations over the last year likely had an impact on that decision. But it is not the type of victory where one stands up and jumps for joy. It is a sobering pyrrhic “victory.”  Mistrust is deep and has grown. That does not dissipate over one announcement. It may be more a momentary relief.

We are now being told how important it is for us to have positive stories and “our positive message” for the media to retain people and attract them to come here. That can only happen if people feel there is something based in reality to feel optimistic about. But the reality of the last year has been a disaster. Many feel there is incompetence at the helm, and we are suffering for it. Any attempts by groups who have signed open letters to the UW System calling for a new administration, or expressing dissatisfaction, failed. Even the media has been suspect because it has been one-sided in its portrayal. Media stories, for the most part, seem to be based on UWSP press releases rather than the voice of the workers. It feels as those in power are controlling the narrative, and that is easier to do in a time when media concentration is the norm.

The future here is hard to predict. Higher Education, as we all know, is in a crisis and has been for quite some time. Every day there is an announcement of some campus closing, departments or programs being eliminated, faculty being laid off. The reasons are plenty – neoliberalism, anti-intellectualism, reduced budgets at the state and federal levels, smaller enrollments, demographics, cost of higher education, lack of career-focused programs, and the list goes on. Campuses tend to deal with these issues when they are amid a crisis, not necessarily before, or at least not planning in any productive way beforehand. It can be difficult to plan for a crisis when that critical period, crunch, or catastrophe is unpredictable. But there are certain benchmarks that are predictable that can be planned for in a comprehensive way.

I asked our chancellor recently what upper administrators at the UW System level discuss when they talk about the higher education crisis. He said they don’t. Their time is spent putting out fires and dealing with immediate situations at hand. I believe him. But if the people at the top are not having these discussions about the state of higher education, who is? How many more campuses may lay off tenured faculty, eliminate programs, or close altogether? Those are the stories we do hear in the news. The untold stories are those where stress has affected health, tears families and friendships apart, forces people to relocate, and students suffer with fewer options and choices for their futures and careers. Those are the stories we do not often hear. People suffering in silence.