On (Wisconsin)

On July 1st, I will become Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University, the public university of Philadelphia.

I’ve spent the last 15 years studying and writing about how and why some students realize their dreams of diplomas while the dreams of others drown in pools of debt. Those efforts deepened my commitment to working in public higher education, where the vast majority of people pursuing economic stability and upward mobility via college are enrolled. Experiencing the turmoil of political and economic waves affecting this sector, and being close to the financial constraints I study, has undoubtedly enhanced my research.

But it is no longer possible for critical scholars working in public higher education to flourish without tenure protections. There are daily attacks on the ideas of scholars who challenge current practices and policies employed by university administrators, state legislators, and even governors. McCarthyism is alive and well — especially here in Wisconsin.

Scientific advancements, innovations, and better public policies are created by people willing to question the status quo. The best teachers help their students understand why, and also help them consider why not? When we are afraid to raise such questions because the very act of inquiry threatens the Boss, we are ineffective. We can pretend that bravery protects us, or that thanks to high pay or a great CV we simply don’t care, but reflective professors know that academic freedom only exists when we are assured that our families and friends will not suffer when we speak. Moreover, an individual’s sense of confidence is not enough — we are only strong when everyone including the most unpopular faculty are also secure.

Driven by a desire to be a professor that worked for the public, I fought hard for tenure, earning it over a period of 7 years of 80-hour work weeks only slightly interrupted by the births of my two children. At several points, I tested the need for tenure — while still on the tenure-track, attempting to speak out and question the Boss. In response I received the sorts of threats and retaliation that affirmed, without a doubt, that tenure would be required to do my job effectively. But just 4 short years after I finally received it, tenure was taken from me.

I’m not alone. Tenure has been vanquished throughout the University of Wisconsin System. In its place is a savvy new #FakeTenure that fools even the most intelligent people into believing it is real. Except it is not. Following passage of #FakeTenure by the UW Regents later this week, firing me would be quite easy. All the Boss would have to do is decide that the Department of Educational Policy Studies no longer needs a scholar of higher education policy. This would be straightforward since there’s another department in the same school where faculty work in this general area. As I’m the only professor in EPS studying higher education policy, I could be dismissed. Done. Gone. That’s “program modification,” plain and simple.

Terrified sheep make lousy teachers, lousy scholars, and lousy colleagues. And today at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thanks to #FakeTenure, I’m surrounded by terrified sheep. To be honest, commitments to the growing number of people whom I am responsible for (including my two children, but also my students and staff), put me at risk of becoming one of them.

It wasn’t always this way. When I came to Madison, I was attracted by leaders who upheld our tradition of sifting and winnowing. I accepted the position at UW-Madison in the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education because the institution desired a sociologist of higher education who would engage in policy work. My job application detailed my commitments to scholar-activism, and my candidacy was (apparently) greeted with enthusiasm. Doing the job required me to question what was happening to public higher education and why. I admired then-Chancellor John Wiley, who spoke out loudly and clearly against cuts in state funding, noting the importance of protecting accessibility and affordability throughout UW System. In 2003 he said:

“Without planning for it, without talking about it as a public policy issue, we, as a state and a nation, are systematically withdrawing public support for public higher education. This is the No. 1 public policy issue that has yet to be discussed or debated.”

Then-Dean of the School of Education, Charles Read, welcomed me as well, suggesting that I take a close look at issues of equity in how students from the state’s 2-year colleges were admitted to UW-Madison, and urging me to join the university’s shared governance committee on undergraduate recruitment, admissions, and financial aid (CURAFA). I took his suggestions, beginning a new study at Madison Area Technical College, and joining CURAFA, where I served as a member for much of the next decade (and chair for several years). During that time, I voiced the concerns of Wisconsin residents who were concerned about being priced out of Madison, supported UW when it was attacked for employing affirmative action in admissions while also arguing for a de-emphasis on standardized test scores, and pushed for greater investments in need-based financial aid. I traveled the state, visiting dozens of colleges and universities, speaking with students and parents, higher education administrators, legislators, and community members. I fell in love with the state of Wisconsin, and sought to honor it by upholding and reinvigorating the Wisconsin Idea.

But over time I watched as the university rapidly changed without public discussion or debate. Thanks to choices made by those controlling the money, UW-Madison is no longer led by a fierce commitment to the public. These changes came from the governor and the legislature, but they also came from new leadership internal to the very top echelons of UW-Madison. The rhetorical nods at affordability that you see in the paper and in signs that say we are moving “forward” are mere PR stunts. Since 2008, UW’s administrators have been more concerned with preserving status at any cost, and are outright skeptical that price matters much for Wisconsin’s (increasingly strapped) families. They just adopted a new discriminatory admissions application, and are urging faculty to disregard true tenure in favor of retention bonuses. This is not the UW I chose to become part of.

Even worse, this is now a place where outspoken faculty like myself are treated without even a modicum of respect. When we dare to sift and winnow we are chastised, castigated, and shunned quietly and covertly, while leadership continues to assert its commitments to tolerance. Believe me, nothing is ever wrong at UW-Madison. We are all “just fine.” Everyone is nice, as long as you are too. In other words, just chew your cud contently and keep your mouth shut.

Hundreds of faculty spread across the institution know of these problems (as my email inbox will attest) but most are still afraid to give voice to the new reality. They hope someone else like me will speak out for them. I’ve tried. After all, the Chancellor and my Dean say that I have nothing to worry about if I do. So why worry?

How quickly they seem to forget the lesson they taught me last summer, when they stood by as conservative watchdog groups attacked me in an effort to launch the higher education platform of Governor Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. They did nothing when I received threats to my safety, and my department staff fielded horrific phone calls. They offered not a single word of support or comfort when my emails were requested by outside groups again this fall, and written hate mail continued to fill my department mailbox. Instead, they denigrated me and my work as bad for the Badger Brand. As if the very sifting and winnowing in which I engage wasn’t the true basis of the brand itself.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that things at UW-Madison got tough. And truly, despite the environment and relatively low pay, I always thought I’d stick it out and hope for a better tomorrow. I wanted to join my esteemed colleagues like Michael Apple and Erik Olin Wright in spending my life here. Things had to get better — eventually. But when word came down at the end of June that Act 55 would end tenure, the UW System President backed the change, and my Chancellor denied it was even happening, I knew it was time to go. I needed a better bunker.

A desire to be closer to the students whose lives I study, in an institution clearly committed to 21st century public university goals, protected by both tenure and a thriving union, led me to Temple University. Fully 35% of the more than 28,000 undergraduates Temple enrolls receive the Pell Grant, and 43% are students of color (including 13% African Americans). In contrast, while UW-Madison educates a very similar number of undergraduates, just 15% of them receive Pell and just 24% are students of color (including 2% African Americans). This year’s Big Read author Bryan Stevenson spoke of the importance of being proximate to the people we seek to serve: “When we get close, we hear things that can’t be heard from afar. We see things that can’t be seen. And sometimes that makes the difference between acting justly and injustly.

It can be hard to act justly while on the payroll of a public flagship that places a higher priority on prestige (e.g. meaning non-residents and high test scores) and Big 10 football than on access and affordability. I’ve tried to distance myself from that aura of Madison while attempting to get close to the students of Milwaukee, who struggle mightily in under-resourced colleges and universities while UW-Madison continues to hoard state funding and increase its emphasis on merit aid. Staying close to people like Nancy Kendall, Chad Goldberg, Dave Vanness, Dang Chongwerawong, Bill Tracy, and Noel Radomski helped. Spending time at our sister campuses around the state, especially in Milwaukee, preserved my faith that things might possibly improve. But it became too difficult to focus on and advance my work on college affordability in a context where critique of existing institutional and political approaches is not only unwelcome, but outright attacked.

Temple University, under President Neil Theobold (past president of the Association of Educational Finance & Policy) and School of Education Dean Gregory Anderson (a noted sociologist of higher education), is committed to being accessible and affordable. This is critically important in a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, where 21% of residents are food insecure and 96,000 people are on the waiting list for affordable housing.

Starting last fall, Temple became one of the only public research universities in the nation to go “test-optional.” While private universities have used this strategy to increase their average standardized test scores (so as to rise in rankings), Temple is committed to improving diversity in the student body by coupling this approach with other new policies including an intrusive advising initiative and a new grant program that is buying students out of working. (Leadership is even welcoming a rigorous evaluation of those efforts!) Almost 1 in 4 students who applied to Temple in the most recent cycle did not submit test scores, and the number of Hispanic and black freshmen rose to 940 from 695 in 2013.

I’m honored that Temple decided to make an extraordinary commitment to my work, supporting me as I build a new center that aims to integrate social and educational policies in order to make college more affordable. I am once again tenured, and for the first time I’m a member of a faculty union with collective bargaining rights (adjuncts voted to join that union last fall). I have long loved Philadelphia, where I worked at a needle exchange while a graduate student at Penn, and I will devote my energies to improving the lives of students at the Community College of Philadelphia as well as at Temple. At the same time, for the next two years I will act as an independent consultant to the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which I founded in 2013. The extraordinary $2.5 million gift that created the Lab, from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, sunsets in 2018. At that time, the entity itself will dissolve — but my work, and that of my incredible team of talented researchers, will go on. All of our commitments to our community partners remain intact. I refused to make this transition until I was absolutely assured of this.

The last year has been extraordinarily difficult. The only way I could survive was by consciously choosing hope over despair. As Noam Chomsky says, “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

I look forward to joining a university and a state that embraces its responsibility for providing the earned tenure protections required to rebuild public higher education. I’m grateful for the inspiration of the Wisconsin Idea and the lessons taught to me by brilliant students, staff, and fellow faculty through Wisconsin. Moreover, I’m indebted to the people of Wisconsin who provided a wonderful — and politically stimulating — childhood for my kids. The fight for our future goes on and on.