A few weeks ago I found out one of my closest colleagues will be leaving the UW Colleges for another job. It’s a better fit for my colleague, she and her partner will be closer to family, but I will miss her dearly. And if not for years of budget cuts and this last year from hell, I can’t help but think she’d have stayed. We both got tenure last year and often talked about loving the student population we worked with. But she’s not the only one. The emails keep rolling in. More colleagues leaving–not for better pay, not because they didn’t love their jobs, but because of uncertainty. With the new regionalization model and now discussion of a merger of the Wisconsin Technical College System and the University of Wisconsin Colleges and Extension, we are living in a realm of uncertainty. As Representative Katrina Shankland said, “Now that Republican legislators have decimated our public universities, we should get a freshman legislator with no experience in higher education to conduct a study on how we can ‘realign’ them,’ said no one ever.'”
My fellow colleagues who teach in the UW College system do so because they believe in the Wisconsin Idea. They believe in being great teachers above all else, and are some of the finest colleagues I’ve ever had the opportunity of working with.
And now many of them are leaving. Because they simply don’t know if the UW Colleges will even exist in one year or two. And that is enough to put anyone on the job market. As I stated in my letter to the Joint Finance Committee, “I simply can’t imagine what my campus and others will look like next year. Our mission is central to the Wisconsin Idea. The UW Colleges are the UW System’s open door, offering an affordable and accessible option for thousands of students. We offer the first two years of a liberal arts education with an Associate of Arts and Science degree, and six campuses currently offer a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree-completion program. We have the lowest tuition in the UW System and offer students the opportunity to pursue a degree while living in their home community at our campuses, online, or through the UW Flexible Option program. We serve more part-time students, more adult undergraduates, and more first-generation college students than any other UW institution. In fact, 60% of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Students from the UW Colleges graduate from 4-year campuses at a 20% higher rate than any other transfer group, including those from technical schools, private schools, and 4-year campuses. And our students—the Wisconsinites staying within their communities, seeking a college degree to improve their lives and others’ in these communities—are the ones who will be most hurt by these cuts.”
The UW Colleges literally embody the Wisconsin Idea–the idea that everyone should have access to affordable, quality education. And now we’re losing our best. Those professors who stayed a few hours extra after classes to make sure a student who was struggling whether in life or in their class was ok. Those professors who checked in if a student missed a few classes because more than likely, something pretty life altering was going on in their lives. Those professors who cared so much that they would put the needs of their students above their own in every situation.
It takes a special kind of person to teach in the Colleges–I know many. They are selfless, loving, and take joy in seeing their students succeed. They see it as a failure of themselves if a number of their students are struggling and change up their pedagogy, syllabi, readings, teaching styles-anything to make sure their students succeed.
I taught a summer class for the past five weeks and on the first night I had a student who had been out of school for over 16 years. This student was clearly overwhelmed with what was expected so I gave him a tour of campus. I showed him how to use the computer lab. I showed him where the library was and how to access his ID and password. Why? Because that’s what you do when you want a student to succeed and remain in your class. That’s what you do when you believe in students who have never been told they’re worthy. That they matter. That it doesn’t matter if they are the first ones in their families to go to college because we’re here to help them navigate those waters.
We’re losing our best. My dear friend was one of the greatest teachers, scholars, and genuine human beings I’ve ever met. This fall, students in Wisconsin will never get to experience one day in her class. They will never have their minds blown by her ability to break down the most complex texts and theories into digestible ideas. They will never know her kindness and her brilliance.
There have been many sad days over the last year but when I found out she was leaving, reality really began to set in. I keep thinking, who’s next? Because who wants to work in a system that may not exist in a few years, that has been so crippled through defunding and divestment it’s barely able to function? Who wants to work in a state where tenure is an abstraction? And who wants to work in a state that simply doesn’t value what educators do and instead demonizes them?
I predicted a mass exodus but even then I never imagined this. And it’s not just in the colleges. Openings in the 4 year institutions are everywhere–some even looking to start as early as January 1st to fill positions that will be left open by those who chose to take buyouts or simply left to work and live in a state and institution that valued them.
Classes start on September 2nd and I’ve never felt so demoralized. Who’s next? When will I be getting the next email from another amazing colleague informing me that they’ve found somewhere else to go because they just can’t take this anymore? Classes will begin. My students will continue to amaze me. The semester will go on. But not without deep sadness that the possible collapse of one of the most necessary institutions may become a reality. I have no words of wisdom tonight, no amazing insights, just a deep sense of loss. And I just don’t know what it will take to convince the citizens of Wisconsin that we’ve gone too far. That the corporatization of higher education is not a model we should be looking to.
So to all my fellow educators who start in a few weeks, know my heart breaks with you. Know I understand the sadness of losing your closest colleagues and friends. And that I know we must, we have to do better. This cannot continue. We are powerless now but I still hold out hope that the people of Wisconsin will wake out of this slumber and realize the damage that has been done. That they will fight back, vote for leaders who will restore whatever is left of the ruins of a once great system so that the generations who will be here long after we’re gone won’t ever remember a time when Wisconsin was run by a handful of legislators who were willing to strip access to higher education from the most vulnerable of our citizens. When Wisconsin was run by a handful of legislators hell bent on destroying education for their own selfish purposes. And when Wisconsin became a laughingstock that gained national media attention for such deep corruption and division. I look forward to that day when this all becomes a distant memory. Unfortunately, how many of us will remain to live amongst the ruins until that day comes?