All posts by Joel Berkowitz

About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of yiddishstage.org. Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.

Autocracy in the Upper Midwest

At protests on Dec. 14 over Viktor Orban’s labor ‘reforms’ in front of Budapest’s parliament. The author with Zoltán Tibori Szabó, Director of the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca.

by Jeffrey Sommers

Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Global Studies

UW-Milwaukee

Dear Chancellor Mone, Provost Britz, and Colleagues, 

I could not attend this week’s Faculty Senate meeting as I was in Riga, where I ran an event designed to thwart corruption, in cooperation with the US Ambassador and the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Incidentally, while I was there, everyone from the US Ambassador on down asked me (in astonishment), “What is happening to Wisconsin?” I am in Budapest this weekend. The purpose of this travel is to convene a meeting of an event at Hungary’s Central European University, funded by the Open Society Foundations, for a project I co-direct on threats posed to democracy by authoritarian governments. Such governments have increased their reach in recent years and typically have used (and abused) constitutional procedures to advance and ensconce their power.

As you might know, this week Wisconsin was described as “Hungary on the Great Lakes” by one of the New York Times’ s top columnists. Moreover, Wisconsin billionaire ‘job creator’ Sheldon Lubar (with whom I have corresponded this past week) wrote Governor Scott Walker to decry the “conniving” (his word) of the Wisconsin GOP and the Governor’s cooperation with them as they abuse their power in acting against the public will by trying to hamstring the state’s newly elected Democratic governor, Tony Evers. Wisconsin is presently the most gerrymandered state in our republic. And here too, in Budapest, people are asking in disbelief, “What is happening in Wisconsin?” Today, as Governor Walker (against Mr. Sheldon Lubar’s counsel) signed our gerrymandered state legislature’s bills to limit democracy, I received emails from around the world from figures of note asking, “What is happening in Wisconsin?”

The work of academics historically has been to pose difficult, sometimes uncomfortable questions, not in a gratuitous, but in a serious, fashion. The search for “truth” and “improving the human condition” as articulated by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1905 are central to UW’s mission, and extend back to the Greek philosophers of antiquity. My uncomfortable question is: “Might it be incumbent upon us to review all UW policies comingfrom the System level or higher given what has been revealed as the undemocratic character of our current state government?” It’s not only UWM that is watching how we answer our current crisis of democracy, but the nation and the world. How will we respond? Make no mistake, this is a historic juncture.

Serving at Cross’s Purposes

by Richard Grusin
Distinguished Professor of English

On Pearl Harbor Day, 2018, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents dropped its own economic bomb on the people of Wisconsin, approving raises ranging from $14,421 to $72,668 for 10 of the UW System’s 13 chancellors. In the days following the December 7 meeting, social media has exploded with expressions of the emotional damage inflicted by these oversized raises.

Many University of Wisconsin faculty and staff, whose pay has remained static for roughly a decade, and who took de facto pay cuts in 2011 when Act 10 peremptorily increased individual retirement contributions by roughly 7%, filled Facebook and Twitter with complaints, shares, and retweets about these obscenely inflated raises.  Over and over again, faculty and staff decried the injustice of chancellors like UW-Madison’s Becky Blank and UW-Milwaukee’s Mark Mone receiving raises ($72,668 and $49,419 respectively) greater than the salaries of many assistant professors and full-time instructors.

Interestingly this outrage was not shared by the news media, who seemed more concerned with the possible injustice of two chancellors not receiving raises because they were being punished for actions that the Regents did not approve. In an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Karen Herzog reported, “The chancellor who hosted the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents on his campus this week has been denied a $25,600 performance raise after his reprimand for inviting a pornstar to speak to students during free speech week a month ago. The regents also did not award another chancellor, whose husband was banned fromher UW campus and stripped of an honorary, unpaid position after an investigation concluded he had sexually harassed female employees.” No mention was made in the Journal-Sentinel of the unseemliness of the large chancellor raises, nor was there any suggestion that“punishing” misbehaving chancellors was in any way problematic.

This stark divergence between local news coverage and the responses circulated widely on social media is worth examining, in part because both responses overlook what I take to be the fundamental problem with the logic of employee compensation entailed in the Regents’ decisions. For me the most troubling element of these raises is not their disproportionate size no rthe financial punishment of the chancellors who had displeased their superiors. Although I am in complete and total agreement with my fellow UW System faculty and staff at being outraged by the dollar amount of the oversized raises given to 10 of the 13 UW System chancellors, I am not surprised. And you shouldn’t be either.

Why am I not surprised?  Because as anyone who has been paying attention knows, the chancellors have been carrying water for UW System President Ray Cross and the Regents for several years now. These outsized raises are financial rewards for their not having opposed or obstructed a single top-down edict from Cross and the Regents–for their having carried out his orders like good soldiers or middle managers are expected to do. 

Put differently, what both the raises and the punishment reveal is that these raises are payoffs, ex post facto bribes, or quid pro quo rewards for UW System chancellors having accepted without objection the destruction of tenure and shared governance; repeated massive budget cuts; unfunded tuition freezes; and the break-up and distribution of the UW Colleges and Extension to the four-year, comprehensive, and doctoral campuses, aka the UW System merger.

Why didn’t chancellors object last year to this merger? Could it be because their jumbo-sized raises were made possible by money freed up by the elimination of the UW Colleges/Extension chancellor position upon their top-down dissolution? As Karen Herzog dutifully reported, these raises didn’t require an infusion of new salary money but were funded by dividing up “the $270,774 salary of former UW Colleges and UW-Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen, whose position was eliminated in the sweeping UW System merger.”

This might very well explain why UW System chancellors have quietly gone along with the absurdly sped-up timetable for this merger. Could it have something to do with the fact that the funds freed up from eliminating Chancellor Sandeen would be used to reward those very chancellors? You don’t really think that Friday was the first time UW System chancellors heard that those funds would be used this way, do you? I certainly don’t. 

What I find most scandalous about these raises is not how grotesquely large they were in the context of the multiple financial needs of a seriously strapped university system, nor how raises were withheld from chancellors who have earned the disapproval of Ray Cross and the Regents. No, what is most troubling to me about the economic logic of these raises is that they reveal once and for all that the role of the chancellor in the University of Wisconsin System is not to represent the interests and needs of his or her university to the UW System, but to carry out the marching orders handed down from above.

Sadly, we now have no other choice but to believe that chancellors like Becky Blank or Mark Mone have not been acting as independent academic leaders, charting the best course for their universities in difficult times. Rather UW chancellors have become little more than well-paid marionettes, whose strings are being pulled from above by Ray Cross and the Walker-appointed Board of Regents. If money indeed talks, these raises speak volumes about the true nature of academic leadership in the University of Wisconsin System.