Seeding the Future of UW System

Saturday, May 26, 2012
I spent this week on a Badger bus, traveling about 600 miles around Wisconsin with 39 colleagues from UW-Madison.  The Wisconsin Idea Seminar took our group to more than a dozen communities, from farms and factories that make wind, milk, sauerkraut and ships, to several schools and colleges, a prison, and even Lambeau Field.  It was an experience unlike any I’ve ever had, as I came to understand why the social compact between the University of Wisconsin and the state is so critical to our mutual survival. We are in the midst of an historic impasse, a time when the standoffs between Left and Right make it hard to imagine a future for UW System that isn't austere or privatized.  But what I learned on this trip is that we are failing to solve this problem because, as Kathy Cramer Walsh keeps telling us, we are not listening

So please, humor me. Let me tell you what I learned from these four vibrant women of the Menominee Nation.

Lisa Waukau
Paula Fernandez
Donna Powless
Karen Washinawatok 
It's an gross understatement to say that the tribe to which Lisa, Paula, Karen, and Donna belong has seen dark days. The Menominee, also known as the Wild Rice people, are the oldest continuous residents of Wisconsin and they once occupied and benefitted from over 10 million acres of land.  As Karen shared with us, the U.S. government took most of that land from them, often with force, and kidnapped their children, sending them to Indian Boarding Schools purportedly in an effort to "save them" through forced assimilation.  The government said it was "helping" by exerting non-Native norms of competition and individualism on people who valued, above all else, community and cooperation.  Then, in the early 1960s national "leaders" attempted to terminate the tribe, singling it out because of its progressive vision, and all land and assets were stripped from the Menominee people, leaving them in utter poverty. It wasn't until the mid-1970s when President Richard Nixon intervened to reverse termination, and allow the tribe to begin to attempt restoration-- a herculean task.

So the Menominee know quite a bit about being derided, misunderstood, defunded, ignored, belittled, and impoverished--far more so than we in UW System ever will. All but destroyed forty years ago, the Menominee tribe we met this week remains intensely under-resourced yet its people are not defeated.  Now occupying just 235,000 acres, far from the economic activities of Madison and Milwaukee, the number of people living on the reservation is small (under 5,000) but growing. The median age is just 27, compared to a statewide average of 36 -- the tribe is full of young people, most of whom cannot speak or understand the Menominee language. There are few employment opportunities, and the median family income is under $27,000 (for the state it's almost $44,000). About 1 out of every 2 children under 6 lives in poverty

This hardly seems like an environment in which you'd expect to see a growth in language and culture immersion programs and opportunities, and a vibrant, accessible and affordable college. But that's exactly what Menominee leaders have built.  Their success lies in an outright audacity of hope and willingness to question and rethink things that most of Wisconsin simply accepts as normal and takes for granted.  For example, when told that only a tiny minority among us possess a skill like speaking Menominee, most of us would say "well, then the language is dead."  We'd give up.  But not Paula: there are only nine Menominee fluent on the reservation now, yet every day she's helping people young and old strive to learn the language and keep it alive.  "Not possible" isn't an answer she'll accept.  As Lisa told us, "We do not cave in." Even when people chastise their children for it, as a white teacher recently did to Karen's niece.

The approach taken by nearly all of Wisconsin's universities and colleges is a highly individualistic one, emphasizing the future private value of higher education, encouraging students to act aggressively to corner the market on a lucrative major, prioritizing their own needs in a competitive world.  Not so at College of Menominee Nation, where more traditional values hold forth over those other urban industrial values. In her psychology classes, Donna emphasizes the group, fostering understanding and cooperation in the process of learning. In much of Wisconsin higher education, administrators distinguish between the deserving and undeserving-- at Madison we are rejecting more students than we admit.  The Menominee take the opposite approach, for as Lisa put it, "teachers have lightening in a bottle-- you never know who your students can become." The College knows that many students make decisions now--not in the future--as they live their living as a process of giving and sharing with family and friends in the here and now. So they are not asked to mortgage their future with student loans, and instead asked to be happy with strong communal learning environments that aren't fancy or high-tech, but are led by committed teachers rather than high-paid researchers. Donna practices patience with her students as they move through the challenges of higher education, focusing on achieving meaningful success with them, not merely sheepskin diplomas. She does not wait for them to show up to office hours but rather reaches out, practicing what the rest of higher education has sadly termed "intrusive" advising.

Real progress in UW System will come when we provide the space for people all over Wisconsin to tell us -- and show us -- what a relevant postsecondary education looks and feels like, and we stop, take note, rethink, and adjust accordingly.  As I learned this week, within the chaos of today's situation lies harmony, and within harmony, our heart.  The seeds for future growth lie not in ideas of our current leaders, but in those whom we have never really allowed to lead -- the regular folks around the state who milk the cows, process sauerkraut, run the family business, labor in the fields, teach in our schools, nanny for our children, and yes, live on our reservations. 

Without constant conversation with the people of Wisconsin, the research and teaching we do in our universities and colleges fails to achieve its full potential--it is incomplete, insufficiently creative, and quite possibly misinformed lacking the understandings and ideas that are earned by interacting with the daily experiences, perspectives, and values outside of the academy.  And, it fails to secure the respect of taxpayers, generating long-term consequences for UW's political support and funding, as well as for the citizens themselves, who lose access to the talents of academics capable of rethinking and finding answers to the questions that plague us.  Public higher education is beholden to the public, to the great benefit of those who fund it and those who work in it.

These days, when the government defunds our public institutions, passes laws to strip workers of their rights, and even attacks with tear gas and other weapons, too many among us simply throw up our hands and say "Let's face facts. This is the new normal. It's time to adapt." These are not the Americans you want to follow.  Instead, look to the Menominee and others like them who refuse to give up.  They say this: "If you need to ask a question, ask it. If you need to say something, say it. Always move forward, otherwise nothing will change."  Following their example of persistent questioning, what UW calls sifting and winnowing, we can together fight for a new, far more powerful existence for our kids.

Public education is facing the threat of termination as we speak.  It occupies and represents space and resources that others want to control.  Will people who believe in public education advocate for assimilation to a "new normal" of no resources, reliance on those whose values don't reflect our own, all in the name of pragmatism?  Or will they fight for restoration? Thankfully, our Wisconsin Idea Seminar with the people of Menominee Nation reminded me that optimism is not futile, naive, or unwise.  Far from it. It's what plants the seeds of our future.

Straight Up ... Or On The Rocks?

Thursday, May 10, 2012
In his Education Week blog "Straight Up", Rick Hess comes to the defense of fellow traveler Naomi Schaefer Riley following her dismissal as a Chronicle of Higher Education blogger. The boom was lowered as a result of NSR's hatchet job, published on the Chronicle's "Brainstorm" blog, of three up-and-coming black-studies scholars. She paints their unpublished dissertations broadly as "left-wing victimization claptrap."

Hess's mounting of the barricades is no surprise as the Right is framing this as a crucifixion driven by political correctness. Ms. Riley's husband, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley, is quoted by Hess as saying of his wife's sacking, "The mob rules." Well, there's an independent source. (Also see Mona Charen and Checker Finn for similar takes.)

Sara, my wife, a former Chronicle blogger herself, called for NSR's firing on this very blog. She described NSR's piece as "emotion-laden spewing, a venomous disdainful piece directed at young women scholars of color." Indeed. As a non-higher education expert and non-journalist, but amateur blogger, I perceived NSR's blog post as a screed better suited for a stream-of-consciousness, verbal diatribe on right-wing talk radio or the Sean Hannity show than the virtual pages of The Chronicle.

Hess's defense of NSR is wobbly, or "on the rocks," if you will. First, Hess equates NSR's attacks on junior academics with political protests against an elected official -- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Second, Hess conflates NSR's blog post with scholarly work protected by academic freedom. There is a critical difference between rhetorical flourishes directed at public figures and similar ones directed at private citizens. Such instances are, in fact, treated differently in libel case law, with public figures having a greater burden of proof. "Scholarly concerns for academic freedom" are not incompatible, as Hess suggests, with an opinion that a scathing, personal critique such as NSR's doesn't belong on the pages of a respected media-sponsored blog. Agreeing or disagreeing with her isn't relevant. As the Chronicle editors noted, her post simply did not conform to "journalistic standards and civil tone." Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the right or privilege to publish a blog or column on a given web site or publication are each very different things.

Conservative blogger and UW-Madison law school professor Ann Althouse offers a refreshingly nuanced take on the NSR affair. She points out that NSR "mocked individual graduate students.... [C]ombining that blogging style with an attack on named, individual students, where you are speaking from a high platform in the established media... that's the problem, and I don't see Riley stepping up and acknowledging it."

That's right. This dust-up isn't much about ideas at all, or freedom of speech, as some have contended. The dispute is fundamentally about journalistic standards in the realm of social media and about the specific personal attacks lobbed by NSR through the Brainstorm blog. The Chronicle and other media outlets should have a higher standard for such blogs -- and if commentators like NSR can't or refuse to meet that standard, they should be replaced by someone that can. If political or philosophic balance is of concern, there are plenty of conservative scholars and thinkers, Hess included, that even on a bad day could more than fill the vacancy created by NSR.

Faculty Involvement & HR Design at UW-Madison

Monday, May 7, 2012
As I recently described, UW-Madison is currently going through a process of Human Resources Redesign.  Today at Faculty Senate there was an unexpected and lengthy discussion of the recommendations of the HR working groups that was at times a bit acrimonious (I say unexpected because it was listed nowhere on the posted agenda). The exchanges between the faculty and the administrators--especially Darrell Bazzell and Bob Lavigna--were fraught with apparent frustration and visible annoyance from both men.  At several points, Lavigna said that faculty had been asked several times to participate in the working groups, but few had. Nothing that had transpired, he seemed to suggest, should be construed as an effort to circumvent shared governance, and transparency in the process was always the aim.  Moreover, he responded to faculty questioning, we should know that "our colleagues" had worked hard on the recommendations, and that he, at least, respected that work.

Driving home afterwards, I had a few reflections and observations I hope it's productive to share.

First, it seems all-too-common for our administrators to mistake faculty critique for dismissal of their hard work.  As if when someone says "I disagree or don't like your idea" they are really saying "You didn't try hard to come up with it."  That strikes me as a defensive posturing that's entirely unhelpful, since the critique is leveled at the idea not the person or their effort.

Second, it is also all-too-common for our administrators to bring forth proposals to the community without providing evidence to support those proposals.  The documents from the New Badger Partnership were heavy on big claims and light on data, and the same can be said for the HR recommendations.  As researchers, this is excruciatingly hard for us to accept.  After all, we spend our days seeking proof for ideas.  As such, we expect from anyone bringing forth ideas to say things along the line of "Based on a thorough review of evidence such as X, Y, and Z, we have concluded Q."  Instead, what we were told today was basically "Believe us, we did research--we talked to people in the community at many forums."  Well, that's not research-- it's a convenience sample of anecdotal evidence.  Where is the literature review? Where are the systematic methods? That's what we need to know.

Third, a favorite refrain appears to be "but we asked you faculty to be involved, and you wouldn't do it. Now you can't blame us."  Well...sorta.  But a key  problem underlying faculty non-participation is how administrators treat advice from faculty.  See above-- would you want to participate in meetings where the people you're having discussions with act as though your difference of opinion with them is an assault on their effort? Where they want to have policy discussions based on anecdote? Where they pull the common punch of "this isn't your area of expertise, so what would you know?"  Where requests for data and evidence are consistently met with suspicion?  This is the environment many of us faculty encounter when we serve on university committees.  So some rightly ask, why bother?

Sadly, that creates a vicious cycle-- out of frustration, we don't spend the time on these key administrative tasks that govern our daily work lives, and in turn we become increasingly disenchanted with the place. That goes to simply prove the administrators' point-- when the going gets tough, where are we?

My honest question is this: Does the administration genuinely want the faculty involved? If so, then the kinds of questions we asked at today's Senate meeting should be welcomed. No one should respond defensively when asked for further information -- instead, it should be sought and provided.  Instead of redirecting well-informed questioners to other people, people not present at the meeting, those who proffered their ideas for questioning should offer to promptly ascertain the information and respond.  Data should be plentiful, evidence brought forth, and open debates should ensue.  That's how academia works.  Despite the wishes of some, UW-Madison remains at its core an academic enterprise, not a business. Thankfully, some professors stood up today and  reminded us of that. 

Why the Chronicle Should Fire Riley

Saturday, May 5, 2012
It's always been hard to take Naomi Schaefer Riley seriously.  Hers is a brand of politically-motivated "journalism" only considered credible by the likes of people like Bill O'Reilly.  In an effort to expose students to multiple points of view, I recently taught Riley's book The Faculty Lounges in my higher education policy course, and my undergraduates found it laughable.  It's essentially a series of empty claims and distorted facts with little evidentiary basis (seriously, she thinks teacher tenure is a 'main driver' of rising college costs!), much like the little talks she's given around the country promoting it.

So I was a little surprised when the Chronicle of Higher Education hired her to join Brainstorm. But, I thought, perhaps she knows a little more than her book revealed-- and I like to read debates on blogs, so why not bring her on?  A former Brainstormer myself (I blogged from June 2009-July 2010 and resigned only because the time commitment was interfering with raising a new baby), I have long appreciated the freedom the editors provide to bloggers.  But that reign isn't without limits--here's the main caution I was given when I began blogging for CHE: "In submitting postings, you warrant that they are original, do not infringe another’s copyright or proprietary rights, and do not violate any person's right of privacy. You also warrant that your article will contain no libelous or other unlawful material. You agree to cooperate fully with The Chronicle in responding to and defending against any third-party claims relating to your postings."

I took those words very seriously. Before posting, I always asked myself "Is this really appropriate for a large, authoritative venue like CHE?"  If I was being critical of someone else, which I often was, I made certain I respected CHE by assembling all of my facts, linking to citations, and asking someone else to read it over before publishing. And I certainly never aimed to do any harm.  If I had an opinion that I couldn't fully research and prepare a reasonable defense of quickly, I reserved it for my personal blog--read by 100s, not 1000s.

Riley clearly doesn't share my respect for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Why am I not surprised, given her disrespect for academia more generally?  What she wrote this week about Black Studies departments was emotion-laden spewing, a venomous disdainful piece directed at young women scholars of color.  She offered not a single fact on which to rest her case.  She clearly aimed to harm these scholars by calling for the end of their discipline, ridiculing their dissertations, and she did so without even reading their dissertations (e.g. without investigating whether there was any truth to her claims of irrelevance).  The last issue regarding libel--whether she caused actual harm--remains to be determined.  The truth is, it's quite possible: let's ask these women whether Riley has cost them valuable time better spent on their work or whether they are receiving hate mail causing emotional distress.

Admittedly, I'm no lawyer.  But whether or not she really broke her contract by writing something libelous, Riley definitely thumbed her nose at CHE and undermined the paper's credibility, damaging its relationship with scholars nationwide. That's a damn shame.  She ought to be fired for that abuse of power. CHE need not continue to lend her its platform.  Let her go.

The Continued Marketization of UW-Madison

Thursday, May 3, 2012
Last year, I wrote extensively about efforts led by former Chancellor Biddy Martin and her administration, donors, and alumni to privatize (or at least semi-privatize) the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  That effort was partially successful, for while Martin and colleagues failed to separate Madison from the rest of the UW System, or gain authority over tuition setting, they did succeed in getting Madison the authority to redesign its human resources system.  This new "flexibility" was praised by many on campus, including staff, faculty, and students, who recognize that the current bureaucracy is not working, especially for those outside of administration.

So, this year the Human Resource Design Project has been advertised as a tremendous opportunity, hard won, and far better than the alternative -- the status quo.  Perhaps.  But few reforms are without consequence, and the recommendations recently offered by the working teams in HR Design suggest this case is no exception.  In fact, the potential long-term effects of this redesign process may result in an very different university culture, one that is far less progressive than Madison has historically been known for.  Instead, the recommendations will likely aggressively speed-up Madison's transformation (I'd say descent) into a market-driven institution focused first and foremost on serving its paying customers.

Some specifics of the recommendations have been discussed over at Sifting and Winnowing and so I direct you to read the details there.  For example, the recommendations include combining the currently unionized classified staff and academic staff into one.  As severals members of the HR working teams point out, this has significant implications for the protections held by unionized workers: "If the state legislature does not amend these statutes, the combining formerly classified staff–the custodians, the office secretaries, financial specialists–into the employee category academic staff will take away the few remaining collective bargaining rights that they have fought and bargained for about 50 years."  Both the classified staff and the academic staff object to this recommendation.

Another recommendation focuses on the distribution of employee pay based on labor market analyses. As members of the Wisconsin University Union point out, this can mean many things-- some resulting in even lower pay for UW-Madison workers.  "There is no standard labor market for any group or individual occupations (with the exception of building trades). There are often valid arguments to be made for or against choosing one group over another. However, choice of a particular labor market as the standard will frequently determine the result."  Crucially, the current recommendations say nothing about providing cost of living increases to all employees, nor is there any consideration of years of experience with good performance.

Furthermore, the proper implementation of these recommendations will likely grow the size of central administration -- not reduce it.  National studies indicate that growth in central administrations are the source of much of the increasing costs of college attendance, so we need to pay special attention here.  According to Joel Rogers, professor of Sociology, “Done properly, the task of specifying the real human capital requirements of hundreds of UW job titles; identifying jobs with the same requirements in external labor markets; collecting all relevant data on their compensation from private employers; and doing all this continuously enough to capture relevant changes, job titles, compensation practices, and labor market boundaries and participants is a massive amount of work."

Finally, despite promises to the contrary, these recommendations involve cuts to employee compensation.  Specifically, academic staff will see their vacation benefits reduced.  As ASEC has pointed out, "newly employed academic staff will lose nearly 52 hours of vacation/personal time under this proposal. Children attending MMSD have 16 days of vacation that do not coincide with the UW’s current holiday schedule, which means a single parent would have four days of vacation left (after caring for her/his child when local schools are not in session)."  And yet UW claims that employees will not move backwards under the new Design?

Now, to UW's credit, this has been a somewhat transparent process.  Many public forums have been held, and there are many ways to provide input.  The 11 working groups on this effort involved many people-- however, a closer look indicates that the vast majority (perhaps 2/3rds) are people currently in HR in the administration--in other words there were not many faculty or union-represented workers involved.  Furthermore, participation among those on the work groups has been reportedly hampered by meeting times occurring early in the morning (e.g. before childcare begins) and during work hours.

Moreover, there has also been a continuation of last spring's approach in communicating with campus members-- administrators tell us what's "important" and "smart" without providing hard facts about the evidence on why.  Where does this proposed structure of titles come from? Where is the data regarding the effects of this sort of market-driven approach versus alternatives?  There is very little data given anywhere to back up the contentions in the recommendations, despite the very expensive contributions made by the Huron Consulting firm, hired under Martin to assist with this work.  The rhetorical approach is led by Robert Lavigna, who speaks about the importance of ensuring that the new system can attract and retain "the best talent."  He utilizes the language of "flexibility", "efficiency," and "effective."  He promises a "greater connection between compensation and performance."  In other words he talks a lot like Biddy Martin, and others like her who are bringing business practices to education.

Thus, one key thing that the new HR Design highlights is that the neoliberal politics embodied in Biddy Martin were not hers alone, and that her efforts were indicative of a broader market-driven culture amongst those who surrounded and hired her, which continues to prevail in today's UW-Madison (and indeed globally).  These recommendations were issued, and are being systematically advanced, despite her departure.  That is something we all must pay close attention to, as these political maneuverings will likely continue to shape the next stages in Madison's development- especially the upcoming chancellor search.  Who will be in charge there? What "facts" will we be provided? What role will faculty, staff, and students play, relative to the roles played by WARF, donors, alumni, and administrators?

A thoughtful approach to considering the desirability of the marketization of Madison requires our entire community think about (1) What are the full set of alternative options under consideration? (2) What evidence is being presented about the likely intended and unintended consequences of each option? and (3) Who exactly stands to benefit, and in what ways, from each option?

Notably, these are not the kinds of questions Huron (our highly-paid consultant) is known for asking and answering. Instead, Huron emphasizes a one-directional model in which administration directs the activities of faculty and staff.  Laura Yaeger, VP at Huron, has said that "universities are getting a better understanding of what activities add value to students and stakeholders while  providing clearer guidelines for staff and faculty about which programs and activities should be supported."   Does that sound like shared governance to you?  Who are those stakeholders?

We are repeatedly being told that our backs are against the wall, and this is our only choice.  Don't listen to talk like that-- you are too smart.  This new Design is neoliberalism at its finest, justifying marketization as a form of self-defense, redefining all interactions within the educational institution as essentially business relationships. We, the faculty and staff and our traditional protections, are being identified as the obstacle to market-based efficiencies.  The ultimate goal is to make UW-Madison less dependent on us.  This gives private investors greater opportunities to profit from state expenditures, while influencing the form and content of education. And it makes business and university administrators the main partnership, redefining student-professor relations.

It is imperative that educators and students across UW-Madison begin to understand and draw attention to how funding priorities, public-private partnerships, tuition and fees, cost-benefit analysis, performance indicators, curriculum changes, and new technologies change the content of academic work and learning, and how they collectively arise from global efforts to discipline academic labor for capital. The changes to Madison's human resources system, and to its operations more broadly, are intimately linked to employment opportunities in Dane County and elsewhere, and to the kinds of education and services we deliver to the state.  If we are going to be market-driven in how we educate and serve Wisconsin, what we provide will be undoubtedly more unequally distributed.  Everyone should have something to say about that. As Lavigna has said "This system will affect everyone on this campus."  He's serious. You need to pay attention.

PLEASE: Send your feedback on HR Design to