The 2015 Official UW-System Faculty Exodus Update Part 2: The “Everyone’s Leaving” Edition

walker-education-reform

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?

An Open Letter to Those Who Hate Teachers

apple-books
When I graduated from college, I, like many graduates, had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.  I was medically cleared to go to West Africa to join the Peace Corps.  I’d applied to seminary and to graduate school.  Grad school took me first, I took it as a sign, and started on a path to get my Ph.D. and become a college professor.  At no time on this path did anyone warn me that at some point in my life, I would be hated, despised, loathed, and treated with contempt for the occupation I chose.  I don’t know that it would have made any difference, but a heads up would have been nice.

When I grew up, I loved my teachers.  I loved my professors.  I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been in classrooms with some of the most gifted teachers who inspired me, taught me what it means to teach, and were not only amazing teachers, but scholars and activists as well.  I truly learned from the best.  When I finally landed a job as a college professor, I was excited to pay it forward–to give my students all that I had learned during those years.  But once I actually began teaching, I was stunned and deeply confused at the very vocal resentment towards those who had chosen to work in the field of education.  When Act 10 was passed, to say it divided Wisconsin would be an understatement.  We were called lazy, overpaid, greedy, and undeserving of the benefits we had bargained for in lieu of lower wages.  At the time, I thought this was hurtful and it made me incredibly angry.  Then, Governor Walker got reelected and we saw an increase in the vitriolic rhetoric towards educators when they began to speak out against his proposed budget.  Admittedly, I have put myself in the spotlight through Facebook posts, tweets, and now through my blog posts, so I expected to get a few horrible comments thrown my way.  I was told I should be on a government watch list because I teach in the field of Women’s and Gender Studies.  I was called a communist.  I was told to “quit whining” and get a real job.  Some wrote:

“if you want to know why I seem angry, it’s because this “crisis” was a manufactured one ” much like the rape crisis you manufactured on campus. Watch, remove the gender studies courses and rape claims go way down;”

“so is someone going to start mocking and insulting her and telling HER to ‘quit your complaining and whining! omg! suck it up!” and all that?”

“Teach students something that will allow them to get a job and pay their mortgages, and then we can worry about your job and mortgage.”

All hurtful and frustrating but I had no idea how bad it would get.

Here are a list of things I have been personally called since I started blogging:
“Liberal union cunt”
“Dyke profesor”
“Lesbo cock sucker”
“Flaming liberal whore”

You get the idea. There are more. You won’t see these on my blog, because I have the ability to delete them, but they’re there.  Anonymous strangers who feel better about themselves by demeaning me.  Misogyny and ignorance at its finest.  And this is mild compared to some of the things other writers or those in the public eye have gone through–I don’t in any way want to diminish the very real death threats that have sent some into hiding for daring to speak out against that which they see as unjust. As John Oliver points out in a segment on online harassment this regularly happens to “any woman who makes the mistake of having a thought in her mind, and then vocalizing it online.”

Again, these were online comments.  And I’m clearly not the only one who’s experienced this. Just this week, a friend posted this:

Joel

Once again, none of these responses to his tweet were accurate (professors don’t teach children, tenure is not a job for life,) but that didn’t stop the immediate backlash against one tweet regarding the elimination of tenure from state statutes in Wisconsin and the very real ramifications of that.

Fast forward to two days ago.  I was at a gas station when a man approached me.
Man: “Looks like gas prices have gone up!”
Me: “Um, yep? I guess so?”
Man: (looks at my UW-faculty parking sticker) “If I had your kind of money, I wouldn’t be complaining about gas prices, bitch.”

I was dumbfounded.  A good friend noted, “Wow, eliciting sympathy purely in order to twist it around into mistaken and misplaced class rage. That is truly sociopathic.”  Agreed.  This man, this complete stranger, felt it necessary to make sure I knew how much he hated me.  I’ve never experienced anything like it, but I know it has happened to others. Example? One friend got punched in the face at a bar by a 70 year old man for simply trying to correct misinformation regarding faculty salaries.  Let me repeat that.  Punched in the face by a 70 year old man.

I posted my experience on Facebook, and perhaps most disturbing was the number of people who had reached out and told me they’d experienced similar interactions.  I don’t know when it became ok to physically confront someone and attack them just “because.”  Another friend pointed out, “The thing is – misconception aside – even if you were a billionaire it shouldn’t be commented on by a hateful stranger who would call you or anyone a bitch.”  Exactly.  And the fact that this is evidently happening more often and to more educators should call us all to take pause and ask ourselves, how did Wisconsin get this divided?  What happened in this man’s life, and what had he been told about educators that he felt entitled to speak his mind and let me know exactly how much contempt he had for me and everyone who does what I do?  It takes a lot of hatred and misplaced anger to behave in such a way.  And to know that this is not an isolated incident frankly both saddens and enrages me.

As I wrote in my Facebook post, I truly want to invent a sign that says “everything you know about college professors is wrong” and wear it daily.  As I pointed out in the letter I wrote to the Joint Finance Committee before they passed the budget, “I will officially make less now as a tenured professor than I did when I started in 2009. In most jobs, your pay is supposed to increase over time—not the other way around. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t make a six figure salary nor will I ever if I spend the rest of my lifetime working in the Colleges. Up until a few years ago, I was still eligible for the earned income tax credit.  Starting salaries of a professor with a Ph.D. remain at $43,000 and have stagnated. The highest paid professor with a Ph.D. at UW-Marshfield/Wood County, after 23 years of experience and service to our campus, makes $65,521.00. Most of my colleagues have second jobs, some at other institutions and others in any part time job available. Several who work full time on my campus and at other institutions are eligible for food stamps and reduced priced lunch programs for their children. They live paycheck to paycheck, working as line cooks and waitresses. They continue to pay off student loans and will do so for the next 25+ years at our rate of pay. Just the other day, a tenured faculty member asked if I’d be a reference on her application to Family Video. I bartended for several years during the summer to help pay off my student loans and make sure I didn’t find myself further in debt. As awkward as it was to have my students see me behind a bar, sadly, I couldn’t afford to leave that job because I made more serving alcohol than teaching in the UW System . . . . We are being asked, for yet another year, to do more with less. There is nothing left. State divestment in public education cannot continue. I get it. Defunding public education has become politically easy. As the Nation recently reported, ‘If states won’t raise taxes or cut back on mass incarceration, gutting higher education becomes the path of least resistance.’ But it’s a dangerous path we’ve been walking on for far too long.'”

So how did we get here? And what can we expect in the future? As Katharine J. Cramer writes in her piece regarding the politics of resentment, “Consistently conservative groups saw things differently, obviously. They wanted lower taxes and fewer government programs . . . and asserted that government programs —except for defense spending—should be as small as possible. They believed in bootstraps and lamented peoples’ apparent inability to use them. Besides spending on defense, they were also ok with funding for programs like the WPA [Works Progress Administration] and the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] that rewarded hard work. Notice how their support for government spending hinged on notions of deservingness. We have seen this theme before. In their eyes, government programs are only legitimate if they support deserving Americans. And this group, like others in my sample treated deservingness as a matter of whether or not the policy recipients are hard-working Americans like themselves (Soss and Schram 2007; Skocpol and Williamson 2012, ch. 4). They approved of government programs when they perceived the programs gave out benefits that were payments to people who had earned them, not handouts to the undeserving (Winter 2008). Hard work was a key consideration, not just for the consistently conservative groups, but arguably for the vast majority of the groups, including the groups who were ambivalent about small government. This is important. It suggests that support for limited government is not driven mainly by a principled belief in small government, but instead by attitudes about a particular program’s recipients (Nelson and Kinder 1996;Schneider and Ingram 1993) . . . Support for small government policies or candidates seemed motivated by something other than abstract adherence to the idea that smaller government is better, and was not a simple result of disliking government or feeling ignored by it. This is where the politics of resentment comes in. In the conversations, you can see how resentment toward target groups often served as the glue between anti-government and small government attitudes . . . . The blow-up over Governor Walker’s budget measures shortly after he took office in early 2011 illustrates these sentiments . . . Each of these groups was supportive of Walker’s proposal to require public workers to pay more into their health and pension benefits. As we saw in the previous chapter, they perceived that these benefits came directly from their own pockets and that as rural residents they worked much harder than the desk workers in state government. In addition, they perceived that the public workers in their own communities (especially school teachers) made salaries that were much higher than their own.”

The problem with this is that public sector employees like UW professors and public school teachers aren’t the enemy, nor have they ever been, and by placing the blame on them for everything from the recession to unemployment rates, we don’t focus on what actually blew up the economy. As Robert Reich argues, “Divide and Conquer tactics pit average working Americans against each other, distract attention from the most unprecedented concentrated wealth at the top, and conceal regressive plans to further enlarge and entrench that power.”  Similarly, Paul Krugman noted, “There is a better answer, and a teachable moment here, which gets at the real nature of inequality in America. It’s not about overpaid teachers. Let’s start by looking at the real winners in soaring inequality — the people who not only make incredible amounts of money, but get to pay very low taxes.  According to Forbes, in 2012 the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders took home a combined $16.7 billion. Now look at those supposedly overpaid government employees. According to the BLS, the median high school teacher earns $55,050 per year. So, those 40 hedge fund guys made as much as 300,000, that’s three hundred thousand, school teachers — almost a third of all high school teachers in America. OK, teachers get benefits, so their total compensation cost is higher than their wage, so maybe it’s only 200,000. But you should keep numbers like these in mind whenever anyone tries to shift attention from the one percent (and the .001 percent) to Americans who aren’t even upper-middle class.”

So why are we still blaming the wrong people for societal’s ills?  When will it stop? And how do we convince someone who only knows and truly believes that educators are the reason their lives aren’t where they should be–that educators and other public sector workers should be punished for “undeserved” benefits, and that their lives are truly better off because of the dismantling of public education–that all of these beliefs are based in false ideologies?

I have no answers.  But to those who hate me, who see no value in what I do, and who think I don’t deserve the privileges conferred by years of hard work and determination, I ask–if my job is so wonderful, so star spangled awesome, why don’t you do what I do?  If being a teacher is so easy, why not become one? If our benefits are so egregiously disproportionate to yours, what is stopping you from going to graduate school and obtaining your very own Ph.D.?  Because instead of dismissing my job, asking for (more) “shared sacrifice,” and belittling my career choice, maybe your time would be better spent becoming an educator, spending some time with people who live and work in my profession, and a little less time in the comments section of your local newspapers, on Facebook, on Twitter, or in peoples’ faces saying cruel and ugly things based on falsehoods, deeply rooted misplaced resentment, and ignorance.

Update:  this piece has been posted in the following places.  Thank you all who have shared:

American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Academe blog

Blogging Blue

Monologues of Dissent

Say no to Vouchers Facebook Page