Ghosting UW: Why People Will Leave, Or, What if the Packers were a Private Good?
In Part 1 of this blog entry, we highlight the disappearing features of employment in the UW System that have created the kind of high quality state-wide resource that Wisconsin could be proud of. The public commitment and the state commitment to making the UW system–not just UW Madison, the flagship, but all the regional comprehensive, two-year colleges, and Extension sites in the state–have ensured our campuses are robust, integrated, and powerful resources for the state’s citizens. As “Ghosting UW: Why We Came Here” explains, the commitment to the UW system as a treasured, collective resource is rivaled only by the unique Wisconsin statewide commitment to the Green Bay Packers–the only publicly owned NFL franchise in the country (and it will always be the only one, as NFL has passed rules prohibiting this model for future teams).
What this has produced is a culture of shared ownership. Much like the Wisconsin culture around the Packers is unique because of the collective passion state residents have for the team (regardless of wins and losses or championships), the UW campuses have been the source of pride throughout the state, even among those who have no direct investment in or relationship with those campuses. Above Highway 29, you’ll find Badger hats and T-shirts and UW-Madison swag in as great a number as you will in Dane County. The UW has been a source of pride, reflected in the public commitment to supporting that treasured place where we were proud to send our kids, proud to advertise on our t-shirts and hats, and proud to work for.
As a point of contrast, what if we decided that instead of being a public good that all Wisconsinsites can be a part of, we decided to sell off the Green Bay Packers to a small group of investors or single owner. Instead of being supported by a collection of shareholders in Wisconsin, the team belong to one or two or three big-money investors. Would our state be the same? Would our Sunday afternoons be the same? Would our star players stay? Or would they avail themselves of the many, many opportunities that the national professional football market has to be lured elsewhere. This is similar, though it may seem a strange comparison, to the national market of higher education and the ongoing dismantling of the UW system. Our best people are going and gone, whether they want to our not. Those who are place-bound and place-committed find themselves taking on more and more of the load of institutional citizenship than before (mentoring, program development, committee work and other service, assessment of student learning, etc), and with increasingly fewer resources and less job stability. We are effectively disinvesting in our public UW System, making it more and more vulnerable to the whims of a few shareholders with similar ideological views and the whims of the market of student enrollment declines and surges.
What’s important for Wisconsin citizens and communities to realize is that the gradual gutting of all those qualities that made UW great means that the people, programs, and commitment that were attracted to a flyover state will be harder and harder to retain. That means that certain programs or opportunities that faculty and researchers have built here will be lured elsewhere, and our students will be poorer for those losses. Sara Goldrick-Rab, who researches educational policy, left in 2016 following the Board’s radical changes to tenure. During her time at UW Madison, she “brought more than $10 million in federal research funding to UW-Madison” and with her departure, “The HOPE Lab she founded will close in 2018, when a five-year $2.5 million grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation expires.” A similar story is that of digital humanities scholar Jesse Stommel, who wrote in this blog: leaving Wisconsin is still hard. Some of the first words I wrote to a close colleague in May when the dominoes here began to fall: “I’m intensely loyal. I don’t abandon ship, but I looked around today and just saw water — no ship,” and, after his decision to take a new position out of state: “When I took this job, I thought I’d be here for life. I was born in this state, my closest mentor was born in this state, and I have some of the most daring and brilliant colleagues here. We have collaborated in spite of systems that have made that increasingly difficult. I remain awed by what we’ve built together.” These are not people who wanted to leave. But their absence, and the loss of what they built, will be felt for years, if not decades.
And not every faculty member who works for the UW system is bringing in millions of dollars worth of federal grant money; faculty at the two-year UW Colleges campuses or UW Stevens Point or most of our regional comprehensive universities were not hired to do that. They teach four courses a semester (in contrast with the 1 or 2 that a research-intensive campus assigns), they engage in scholarship, and they build programs, mentor students, and work on their teaching. These faculty members were hired through a rigorous national search. For many of these positions, they were chosen from dozens to hundreds of applicants vying for the same job. The decision to move to central Wisconsin was a deliberate choice that each of these faculty members made because they wanted to teach the students who live here in Wisconsin. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education speaks to diversity of students who choose accessible institutions; they are a population of students like those at UW Stevens Point, who are both challenging and rewarding to work with. They are the first in their families to go to college; they went to rural (or urban) high schools. They struggle financially. They expect to work hard. They are so many UW students.
The faculty selected from the rigorous national search process spend their careers learning how to teach these students and how to help move them through higher education successfully. Last year, the UW Colleges lost the chair of women’s and gender studies to a Dean position at at Bay de Noc College in Escanaba. Dr. Amy Reddinger created and cultivated the UW Marinette LBGT Center, responding to the “overwhelming need for the resource.” As Dr. Reddinger stated, “There are no organizations or agencies that are dedicated to working with LGBT people in at least three counties in Oconto, Marinette, and Menominee.” The center also is a critical opportunity to combat the growing numbers of suicide among LGBT youth in the community. “The suicide rate for LGBT youth is four times higher than non-LGBT youth. We need to support kids who are coming out earlier and earlier,” she explained. So while the faculty members that we are at risk of losing may not be as well known as Sara Goldrick-Rab, they are much more like Dr. Amy Reddinger. They are faculty members who are able to see the unique needs of the geographical area that the campus serves. They made a choice and a commitment to serve the students and the community. They teach our students English, History, Political Science, and Sociology, and they teach them well. They are highly desirable. And other institutions see their worth.
These are examples of people who already left the state. But remarks from current faculty who are dealing with the consequences of President Ray Cross’s reckless decision to dissolve the UW Colleges as an institution and reassign them as branch campuses and UW Stevens Point’s nationally embarrassing announcement of elimination of 13 majors, all in the liberal arts–have wrought. The University of Wisconsin System has invested millions of dollars in developing tenure-line faculty and academic staff who have become experts in their fields, and Wisconsin is losing (and will continue to lose) that investment as people take that expertise and exceptional credentials to other more stable jobs in other states.
Informal surveying of current faculty responding anonymously illustrates these tragic losses. Explaining their desire to look elsewhere for academic employment, faculty stated they are looking “…anywhere more stable than UWS,” and “…anywhere other than UW.” Many would prefer to stay, “If I could, I would. I just don’t think it’s feasible in the long-term. I can’t deal with the constant uncertainty” and “Not if these changes go through. I love teaching here, but this will change the entire mission of the University. We are here to serve the needs of the community, and that will no longer be possible.” One faculty member in an affected department wrote,
“It’s startling to have multiple interviews lined up already. I have an interview scheduled for an out of state position that pays significantly more than what I make here. I was also offered an interview for a position outside of my field for a job that seems very exciting. To have multiple organizations recruiting me is such a departure from my current situation where I am simply not valued… where my institution is trying to jettison me. I love my job; I work hard to serve my students well. I don’t want to move. I wish I could stay here, where I have a community and a home, where my child goes to school, and where we have friends. But it’s clear that UWSP sees me as a liability rather than an asset.”
Another faculty member from one of the small, Central Wisconsin two-year campuses felt forced to go on the job market after the merger announcement, and will now leave the system for a position with a salary $30,000 higher than her current pay (in a liberal arts field); and will take with her several popular local continuing education youth outreach opportunities and relationships with local nonprofit organizations.
And what drives them to go elsewhere is the consequences of the public disinvestment in the system and concern for their families and students: “I’ve devoted nearly 20 years of service to this state, only to be repeatedly mocked and made to feel worthless. Even if I can personally absorb the stresses, I know my family cannot.,” and “The stress is unbearable. I find I have little time to concentrate on actually teaching. I can’t sleep and I am getting very sick.” The stress of the restructuring and its poor execution as well as the relentless cuts, furloughs, and hostility from the governor, the legislature, and the Board of Regents has created “stress personally, physically, family, professionally… physically feel ill about it,” with another respondent writing “I’m not sleeping. My anxiety is through the roof. I can’t be the teacher I want and can be in total chaos all the time.”
And faculty and staff responding to questions are worried not just about their families and their health but the consequences to the system, and to their students. The concerns focus on what it means to hemorrhage our most committed and hard-working faculty, reflected widely by faculty considering leaving; we are losing the Aaron Rogers and Jordy Nelsons, the Clay Mathews and. yes, the David Bakhtiaris–who show up, do the job, and do it well, even if they aren’t the rock stars.
- We’re going to lose a lot of talented, passionate educators, and the students are the ones who’ll suffer for it
- The UW System is in danger of losing much of its talent.
- The faculty who have left have been some of our best. Huge loss for students and colleagues as we lose opportunities to work with these talented faculty who take their abilities, knowledge, skills elsewhere.
So who benefits from this disinvestment? Who benefits from starving the UW of resources and insisting that the gap between expenses and revenue (largely tuition at this point) don’t line up. Who benefits when structural deficits force program cuts, faculty layoffs, and what eventually will be small campus closures. Student? Faculty? Staff? Our communities? Who benefits from these choices, when $100 million can be used to make our K-12 schools more prisonlike while the options for our local students seeking higher education become narrower and fewer? Ultimately, both people who are leaving the UW and the state and those who are staying feel pain. Our students will lose. The state will lose.
As one faculty member wrote “I feel heartbroken that The Wisconsin Idea is dying before my eyes.”