Mike Magnuson attended the University of Wisconsin’s recent commencement ceremony and reflects with mixed feelings on the general state of higher education in Wisconsin.
Last Saturday, with high hopes and an unusually wonderful attitude, I traveled to Madison and attended the University of Wisconsin’s graduation ceremony held at the majestic, storied home of the Wisconsin Badgers football team, Camp Randall Stadium. This event was a proud moment for the thousands of people there—the graduates, of course, and their families and friends, and for me, too, because I had a family member graduating—and whatever bright or dim view you may take of a public university education, you cannot deny that completing a rigorous university course of study is a terrific accomplishment, one of the peaks in any educated person’s life. So to these graduates, whoever you are and whatever your grade point average might be, I rise to my feet and applaud and say, without even a hint of irony, “Well done! Bravo!”
On that afternoon, however, more than a hint of climate change dominated the University of Wisconsin air. The sun had left the state for the weekend and had been replaced with death-metal skies periodically spitting tiny, knifelike hail. The temperature held steady at 45 degrees Fahrenheit—in the middle of May!—and biting, gusting northwesterly winds raked the crowd in the stadium and nearly froze the graduates seated on the football field, most of whom were dressed only in light spring clothing under their thin black graduation gowns. Were this not such a joyous occasion, the general effect of the event would have been as if Hogwarts Wizarding School had multiplied its enrollment by about 2000 percent and had come to the gates of Mordor for the conferment of degrees.
But so what? This was Wisconsin, where nearly everyone in the crowd had experienced weather a hell of a lot more cold and miserable than this! We were there to experience joy and feel pride, and by golly, we did!
Before the ceremony, the University of Wisconsin Varsity Band played a few spirited numbers under the direction of the legendary Michael Leckrone, who has been directing the band for forty-seven years, since the summer of 1969, when the war in Vietnam was still in full swing and Madison was one of the nation’s epicenters of student-led, anti-war protests. Camera crews roved the football field and projected their images on JumboTrons over the north and south end zones, and on the north end zone JumboTron, Michael Leckrone, the old maestro, the permanent fixture of the Wisconsin Badgers, a living memory, looked like a smiling popsicle stick in a red suit jacket. When the time came to get the party started, he lifted his baton and whisked it downward, and his world-class band heralded the procession of dignitaries as they entered the stadium and made their way toward the stage.
The most luminous dignitary of the day, according to the school’s promotional materials, was Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, alumnus of the University of Wisconsin, who had transferred to Wisconsin from North Carolina State before his senior year and led the Badgers to a thrilling 45-37 loss against the University of Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl. Mr. Wilson, winner in life but ultimately a loser at the University of Wisconsin, walked at the front of the procession alongside Chancellor Rebecca Blank. The cameras projected the two noble citizens onto the JumboTrons, the giant athlete and the short, rather bookish lady, a symbol of the unified hopes of intellectual pursuit and sport—and who wouldn’t love that?
The pleasant ceremony proceeded in the manner that these things usually do. An a cappella group performed a snappy rendition of “On Wisconsin.” Anna Whiteway, a graduating senior in music, belted out the national anthem and blew the crowd’s minds and warmed their hearts, et cetera. The chancellor made a few amusing remarks about college life and the wide-open future and reminded everyone that, yes, Russell Wilson would speak to us soon.
But before that, Regina Millner, President of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, stepped to the podium to deliver her encouraging address. She’s a lawyer and real-estate developer and Wisconsin alum and over the past thirty years has either served on or chaired nearly every possible alumni committee: Wisconsin Alumni Association, Wisconsin Athletic Board, Wisconsin Real Estate Alumni Association, and so many more that we could spend the rest of our lives reading the list. While she settled herself before the microphone, clouds blackened the sky beyond the north end zone JumboTron, and the screen filled nearly completely with Ms. Millner’s stern head looking down at her prepared remarks. Time seemed to come to a halt.
Now, if you don’t live in Wisconsin, you won’t know that the State University System here includes twenty-six campuses and has been, until recently, one of the finest, most well-funded university systems in the world, but since Scott Walker assumed the Governorship in 2011 and spread austerity across the state like a rank bacterial infection from the middle ages, the budget for the system has been cut by 250 million dollars, probably more than that. Recently, as a part of the new fiscally responsible approach to public universities, the Board of Regents, all of whom are appointed by the Governor, voted to change the nature of tenure for the faculty. In the new version, the university officially thinks tenure is a great idea, a reward for excellence, but, in order to prevent faculty from thinking tenure is a guaranteed job for life, the new policy calls for periodic reviews of tenured faculty, meaning essentially that tenured faculty can be canned at any time, for a variety of reasons, some of them well beyond the scope of the free pursuit of knowledge. Along with this, the Regents have approved a measure that allows for the Board of Regents to eliminate university programs and university faculty in times of “financial emergency.” Since the Scott Walker vision of Wisconsin maintains that this place be a 65,984 square mile state of financial emergency, the new policy effectively means that the shoe can drop on any program of study at any time.
In response to this, the faculty, understandably, has blown its stacks. By the time commencement day arrived at Madison, the faculty senates at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Milwaukee, River Falls, Lacrosse, and Green Bay had voted almost unanimously to express no confidence in the Board of Regents and in Ray Cross, the mild-mannered and unpopular President of the Wisconsin System.
I support the faculty, without reservation. The strength of a university has been and will always be in the strength of its faculty. I myself am an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, where I received an outstanding education from a terrific, broad-minded, and caring faculty. In lots of ways, I owe my life to the University of Wisconsin system, and I’m sure hundreds of thousands of other system alumni will say the same thing. Moreover, tenure is the absolute foundation of academic freedom, which guarantees faculty to pursue all avenues of intellectual pursuit without fear of administrative repercussion. If faculty don’t have that, they live in fear, and if they live in fear, they can’t do their work properly, and society needs intellectuals in universities to pursue their work without restriction—no matter what right-wing talk radio might tell you—because that is how we use our brains to move the world forward in a positive direction.
But here’s the thing: of all the groups a right-wing, fiscally conservative administration might choose to attack, the professoriate provides nearly the softest target imaginable.
Let me explain myself in terms of my own poor attitude toward the types of people you might meet working at a university. Here, for instance, is something I scribbled in my journal in 2002, when I fancied myself to be a literary man whose secret prim voice and penetrating observations would only be discovered posthumously:
“When I go to hell, which looks like a statistical certainty at this point, I will spend eternity in a state university faculty departmental meeting convened to discuss matters of either budget or policy or, as would be the far greater likelihood, to decide who will volunteer for a committee to further investigate the matters of budget or policy about which no conclusive agreement has been reached today. Because creative writing has been my intellectual discipline in life, if you can call it that, the Devil will have assigned me to the eternal English Department meeting, and woe unto me, for I will be sorely familiar with the dentist’s drill of the proceedings! Robert’s Rules of Order will be in place. Everyone will have a note pad and a writing instrument at the ready, and on each face will be an expression that equally mixes intense prayer, unfailing concentration, and the sort of clenched jaw that accompanies an epic struggle to repress flatulence. Every remark will begin with either ‘It seems to me’ or ‘Quite frankly,’ and when a salient point has been made, the collective brains of the scholars in the room will bounce and rattle inside the bobbleheads everything above their necks will have become.”
That felt so good to write way back when, I have to tell you, and even though the prose represents the sort of stilted, bad Abraham Lincoln impression only an unhappy professor might scribble late at night after several gallons of beer and a few hateful servings of Taco Bell, and even though the tone of my journal entry suggests a mean, dismissive attitude toward a group of otherwise quite capable human beings, the general thrust of the argument, as it were, is true: faculty meetings are a drag. Almost nothing ever gets decided. Almost always tension lies under the surface, with various factions trying to find ways to obstruct their enemies, some of whom had become enemies subsequent to an ill-advised remark at a faculty meeting years ago. Some people in the meetings will be bored out of their minds and doodling on their notepads and waiting for the agony to be over with. Some people won’t even have bothered to show up at all, because what’s the worst punishment the department can hand out for blowing off a meeting? Take a censure vote on you? Take a vote of no confidence? Take away your birthday?
Needless to say, only a certain breed of careerist, power-seeking ass-kissers enjoy faculty meetings. These are the type of people who will volunteer to serve on every committee and every subcommittee and who will find a way to work the phrase “this institution” into every conversation. These are the faculty who will be the first to volunteer for “Meet the Families Day” or to spend the entire Saturday before final exams in the student union handing out free pizza to the exhausted students. If people still smoked at universities (and thank God, that’s on the decline), these faculty would be the ones stumbling over themselves to light the dean’s cigarette. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that these folks are the ones who climb the institutional ladder from good, old-fashioned professor to department chair to assistant dean and so on. In this sense, life in the university is just like life at another job: there are people on the job who want power and who will glad-hand and smile nonstop in order to obtain it and maintain it. For example, in the world of university booster types, Regent Regina Millner, with her lifetime of service on just about every University of Wisconsin Alumni committee imaginable, is undoubtedly one of the all-time finest examples of the ass-kissing personality type. And look how it’s paid off! She’s the President of the Board of Regents!
What causes the problem, what makes the faculty a soft target, is that the faculty almost uniformly have no formal training in the management of something as huge and complicated as a university. The faculty are often world-class experts in various scientific disciplines or mathematics or philosophy or music or what have you, and that’s why they got the job in the first place. Along with that world-class capability, naturally, comes world-class egos and arrogance, which isn’t a bad thing, really; if you happen to be top-level at anything, you haven’t gotten there by being meek and humble and not recognizing your self-worth. That kind of ego, however, can cause certain people to believe they have something coming to them, some inherent respect owed to them, but in the world outside of the faculty’s respective disciplines, people don’t always give a shit.
All this is grasping the obvious, for sure, and not explaining a complicated situation sufficiently. I don’t understand it, I guess, because I’m an alumni and not a faculty member in the system. Nevertheless, since Scott Walker has come to power in this state, he has acted with impunity. In 2011, when he pushed forward the legislation known as Act 10, which stripped the public sector unions of most of their power, crowds of thousands gathered in protest all over the state. On weekends here in Madison, the crowds of protesters exceeded 100,000, all of them stridently opposed to the damage Walker had done to the public schools, social services, libraries, prisons, parks, and so on, but the protests didn’t change a thing. Act 10 remains law to this day. So now the faculties of several Wisconsin System Universities have voted no confidence in the administration, and sure, they can feel appropriately righteous about voicing their objections, but it won’t do any good. Tenure, the way it was, will either never return or will be weakened for a generation. Besides, nobody in the state is protesting on behalf of the faculty. As far as I know, in fact, nobody outside of the university towns is even talking about the situation.
Toward the end of Regina Millner’s predictably dull and unimaginative remarks, she said something about how the university could never be possible without the faculty. She wanted to thank the terrific faculty for all their hard work. At that moment, as if by miracle, the sun emerged from the clouds and bathed the graduates on the football field in a joyful, golden light. The graduates cheered. The crowd cheered. Ms. Millner lost her place in her speech and stared over the assembled masses in complete disbelief. It was as if she had never seen sunlight before!
A few minutes later, the clouds returned along with a light hail, and Russell Wilson took to the stage and spoke passionately about America’s favorite subject: what it’s like to be a gifted male athlete. He told the crowd nobody believed in him when he was growing up. He was too small to play big-time ball, and gosh, his coaches never encouraged him when he need it the most. He said at one point, before he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, his coach informed him that he would never step on the field of play again. Russell talked to God about it, and God said something like, “Hey, man. Don’t let people tell you what you can do or what you can’t do. Believe in yourself!”
Those weren’t his exact words, either God’s or Russell Wilson’s, but the point was clear. What you think is the end isn’t always the end. If the faculty had heard this, would they have recognized its truth? For now, the faculty in Wisconsin has been beaten. They have voted no confidence and expressed their anger, but after that, they don’t have any options. If they stage a walkout, for instance—which is rather difficult for a lot of them in the summer months, since they’re already gone—maybe the universities will declare a financial emergency and cut the positions of those who have walked out. That sounds crazy, but then again, these are crazy times. Who knows what either side might do? I don’t know the answer, but I know that everything the opposition to Scott Walker has tried—protests, angry letters, votes of no confidence, and so on—has failed. Most of the faculty are not from Wisconsin originally, and maybe they will take this opportunity to find work in other, friendlier states, but maybe, if the faculty are as smart as they think they are and as smart as everyone else knows they are, they will find a way to stay here and fix all this before there truly will be no turning back.
When Russell Wilson took his seat after his speech, the crowd went wild, and the rest of the ceremony went by in a flash. We stood and danced to “Jump Around,” a highlight of all the Badger home games, and toward the end, we joined the band in the singing of “Varsity,” the alma mater song of the University of Wisconsin. If you’ve never heard that song in Camp Randall Stadium, you have missed something beautiful, a huge crowd singing that slow, sad, hauntingly proud tune.
I wept as I sang along, and I’m sure many people in the crowd did, too.