Blog 4 Work harder to Save the Wisconsin Idea.

Open for busyness. Work harder. Teach more classes.

Work harder. Teach more classes. This plea from the governor proves that we need a revitalization of the WI idea. Is this state’s current philosopher-king really giving advice to the professors in this great nation? Ask the students. Ask them if the professors should be given less time to chat with them. Ask the students if they want their professors to stop sharing their personal stories and opinions out of fear that they will lose their jobs. Ask the students if they want a fair share in governing.

Wisconsin was, until this year, the only state to protect tenure with state statutes. Now, 165 years into the story of the UW, Wisconsin is the only state with state statutes for firing tenured faculty. We are extremists in some ways.

This week’s three guest speakers, Kelly Wilz, Dave Vanness, and John McAdams, shared their personal stories about tenure and shared governance in Wisconsin. Kelly Wilz is trying, via, and conversations with students, to mobilize public support for the academy and many a professor whose starting salary is around $43,000. Kelly shed light on one element of teaching at a university that often goes unseen. Many professors are part of the support system for students. Whether it is problems with money, relationships, work, or school, all students experience some major life stressors. Some professors volunteer their time helping students through these crises. Without tenure, these professors are risking their jobs sticking their necks out for these students. As all the speakers this semester have tried to convey, the rules are vague. It’s possible to unknowingly break the rules. The limits of acceptable behavior are negotiable. Some professors make one mistake and are terminated. Some regurgitate oppressive comments habitually and are allowed to continue. Those with power decide what the disempowered are allowed to say, teach, and learn in some ways. The current administration here is trying to narrow the responsibilities of professors and disempower them.

The AAUP, the American Association of University Professors, in which Wisconsin has a very strong history, says the main duty of professors is outside the classroom. There, scholars can be activists, and that is where rapid progress is actually needed. At this point in time, it doesn’t matter so much what professors are doing inside the classroom if they are not also encouraging the students to be active citizens in America. How professors wield their power outside the classroom is vitally important. Both sides of the aisle can agree on this. The disagreements start with what the activism should be about. Taking tenure away essentially shuts these activists up.

It is through a careful process of discernment with colleagues that the punishments and rewards have been delivered in academia. This is common sense, a common core of academia. Faculty keep each other in line communally. A community policing of sorts. Plus they carefully self-censor most of the time. As one of the readings said, an idea to make this framework even more inclusive is to add all university employees to the tenure system. So all workers in a university system would be in the same boat.

This ties in with another guest speaker’s simple genius on campus this week, Theda Skocpol of the Scholars Strategy Network. She outlined the inner workings of the SSN in which jargon-less and acronym-less 2-page papers are collected. The whole idea is to make more information accessible to anyone and everyone. This is precisely the main purpose of tenure, to benefit all of society, according to the AAUP. Sharing with all the people is the essence of the Wisconsin Idea. The society should also share with the tenured professors.

Naturally, the governence of the UW is shared between those outside and inside academia. This is blasted out of the water by the elimination of shared governence. This is a pipe dream if the professors are not the ones hiring and firing. Divide and conquer. Make those outside the academy hate those inside. Take the university for granted.

The current administration’s think tank wants the university to primarily train the workforce. That sounds reasonable at first. Questions arise about the purposes of the university. What are the top priorities of the university? How can the university help every family in Wisconsin, as leaders of the state asked years ago? The current administration wants the university’s research to produce immediate busyness results, i.e. fast cash. What do the citizens want researched? Citizen-scientists need to speak up. The students desperately need to see a light at the end of the academic tunnel (other than a paycheck).

The essence of the Wisconsin Idea is being forcibly removed. Work harder. Teach more classes. Hurry up, finish your research, produce more results and more fast cash. Big and bold. This isn’t how science works. It’s not how learning works. The UW is a sanctuary for scholar activists. It is a refuge of academic freedom. It’s also now on an endangered list.

After growing up in the driftless region of the state where one of the mottoes is “slower is better,” the frenetic rush of the city is unsettling. What’s the big hurry? Slow food. Slow media. Slow garbage. Let’s slow down. Isn’t it wonderful to ponder what will happen in the next 165 years at the UW? Forward Wisconsin! Fast-forward Wisconsin!