By Kris Purzycki
By now, you know about the governor’s proposed budget cuts. You will likely have been bombarded by talking points that have been used to support any number of conceits for or against public education. If you are connected in any way to anyone paying attention to the proposal and the impact on UWM, it’s likely you’ve also been exhausted by the forcefulness of the debate – considerate moderation and dilly-dallying with one’s opinion is profane in these times after all.
Instead of reciting the statistics or experts that have overwhelmingly denounced the governor’s proposal, I’d like to reflect on the mood of UWM since the budget was announced and offer a view of how the campus has changed. As someone who studies the media’s impact on emotion, I have paid particular attention to how the last several weeks have been mired in uncertain gravity.
However, as an instructor, colleague, volunteer, and friend, it is impossible to maintain the apathetic objectivity we’re supposed to maintain in the academy. Talking to many of my peers, I instantly notice how the buoyant exhaustion that comes with teaching has been replaced by a brackish bile of anger, sadness, and anxiety as well as a measure of shame.
This shame comes from those who have been in the critical inquiry business so long that they cannot help but step outside their own skins to question. Am I paid too much? Do I work hard enough? Why didn’t I attend the rally yesterday? This guilt comes from the barrage of what boils down to attacks on a profession that is comedically foreign to the current administration. Regardless of the rational outcome of this reflection, the remnants of this unqualified guilt remain.
These emotions manifest themselves in many individual ways: downward glances and hurried paces, doors to friends’ offices that were once perpetually welcoming now barely cracked, the easy resolve of the morning wait for the copier now steeped in impatience and frustration. Every encounter, every room is darkened by an uncertain future.
My office is housed within Curtin Hall, one of several concrete (not ivory) slabs which may be easily seen from the top of the Kilbourne Reservoir Hill, sharing space with St. Kasimir’s. The office I share with three other instructors has only three desks. Our office computer, when it was operating last semester, was running an operating system almost as old as most of our students. Our phone, however, is older than most of my students although the small office actually accommodates the short cord between the handset and the cradle.
Still, We Are Lucky
I know of at least one department whose offices have no phones at all. An instructor in this department laughs about this before scolding himself for making light of the situation and the ridiculousness of it all. Consider what this instructor does besides teach nearly 180 students every week: in addition to grading his students he is advising not only those in his courses but who are also enrolled in the various programs he has developed, championed, and maintained. There are numerous departmental meetings as well as workshops to attend. Moreover, these duties are associated with one of several roles he plays on campus. Would the governor ask my colleague to take more time from his family to take on more?
If the last century targeted the welfare-recipient, this one has certainly been a long open season on tenured faculty. In addition to the workload mentioned above, you’d also find exhaustive research demands. What is the value of this research? Only the mere betterment of humanity and discovering how we may improve our capacity to love one another.
At a recent budget meeting attended by faculty, staff, and students, Chancellor Mike Mone evoked a memorable passage from the recently resurrected Wisconsin Idea: “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” The resonance in this passage, for me, is the notion that the two communities are inseparable, their communion recursive. Describing this during a later meeting, a peer smiled and replied that, “the greatest thing that could have happened is that the governor could get caught manipulating the Wisconsin Idea. By doing so, he awoke all of our attentions and focused us on this concept that had been dormant for too long.”
Indeed, the Wisconsin Idea has been the talking point of many the last couple of weeks. It has become the irrefutable mandate of those of us who cherish our state, our city, our school, and the communities that build them. It is also easier to answer this question of why the current administration is so determined to destroy public education. Like much of Wisconsin’s singular history, public education emerged as an element of the state’s progressive tradition. Privatizing our schools snuffs out one of the final entities that stand in the way of the neoconservative sweep to eradicate any traces of state supported public service.
As a first-year composition instructor, I consider myself extraordinarily privileged to work with students during the first year of their time at UWM. Out of those first anxious months, I get to watch tentative friendships form and new communities flourish. Across campus, instructors, and staff pocket their self-concern and holster their anger so that these flourishing communities might develop their own comprehension of what is transpiring. We are not, however, completely impervious from the occasional slip and using the situation to illustrate the value of critical thinking.
But the faculty and academic staff is only a portion of the UWM community. There are the hundreds of student employees making slightly over minimum wage. Teaching assistants such as myself might be teaching around 50 students while pursuing their own studies. You can hear the worry from Jim, one of the custodians in Curtin Hall, and how these cuts will influence his ability to take care of his elderly mother. Heartening news about one group spared the axe is swiftly overshadowed by mention of those that are still endangered.
From my perspective as a graduate student and freshman composition instructor, I despair at the thought of how detrimental the haphazard politics of our governor will be towards the Wisconsin academic community. His constituency seems to take no issue in the toll the proposed budget will have on jobs. I cannot fathom the attitude that rallies around the support of a sports franchise yet discounts the institutions that strive towards the betterment of our communities.
Attack on Educational Communities
It is not only well-paid academics and excess administrators that are being scrutinized, nor the universities and colleges that employ them. Wisconsin’s state government are not simply chastising education, but are working to eradicate the community building that occurs within the academy and further erode the ability for our colleges to work with the surrounding communities.
Here’s the Rub though
In spite of this funk, the communities of UWM are coming together. These communities are larger, more focused, louder, more attentive, smarter, and more resolute in their opposition to an ideology that has, for too long, undermined a devotion to a quality publicly accessible education. If the administration’s aim is to fracture and decimate this community, it will discover it’s underestimation in the collective response by those of us who proudly serve our on and off-campus communities.
Nonetheless, at the end of our very long days, we all return to our families, friends, neighborhoods, side jobs, volunteering, and other social groups where we grapple with these discussions again. At times it is simply exhausting. Sure, many of our peers are sympathetic but you cannot help but encounter the media-spoon-fed misconceptions. I overhear two men describe the researcher who should be teaching while in line at the store; while waiting for the bus, I watch two women enter the bank while praising the destruction of the “ivory tower.”