A colleague’s perspective: Some thoughts on the current state of affairs in Wisconsin

The text below came in yesterday, unsolicited, from a young colleague on the faculty of our great University. Like maflag_tifny people, this person is  thinking hard about what faculty can and should do under the present circumstances. We are publishing these thoughts as one thoughtful perspective.

As a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I feel particularly obliged to have a concrete plan of response to the current state of affairs in the state. My main concern is to support and protect the different groups that I feel responsible for. These positions are entirely my own personal opinion and I recognize that not all of the groups that I feel responsible to protect and to support will agree with my thoughts on these matters. There is no way to be apolitical in the current situation. If I choose to reschedule or cancel classes then I am on one side. If I choose not to reschedule or cancel classes then I am on the other side. Much of these ramblings is to simply explicate the unique ‘faculty side’ of things.

(1) Undergraduate Students
Undergraduate students come to the University of Wisconsin in order to receive an education. There is great variation in the political views and the goals of the population that makes up undergraduate students. I believe that it is most prudent to work hard to prevent the undergraduate students from being disenfranchised during the current protests. Continuing class rescheduling or class cancelations will frustrate and disenfranchise any student who is not participating in the protests. Having this happen not only weakens any productive aspect of the protest activities but also veers away from our goal to educate our undergraduate students.

There are many factions interested in how UW-System runs and I want to firmly declare that as a tenured member of the faculty that I am committed to the well-being of UW-System. Each faction will have their own unique perspective on how best to address the current situation and I don’t believe that disagreement about particular actions indicate that different factions disagree on outcomes. In fact, it will be very effective if different factions pursue different actions while at the same time supporting each other in ways unique to the resources of the particular factions. A many armed and distributed approach to fighting for UW-System will be the most effective plan and I stand committed to this.

The best outcome of the current situation is to provide the undergraduate population the education they expect to receive this semester, to further educate them about the extremely important issues being discussed in the current budget battle and to provide a good example of responsible political activism. If I as a professor can achieve these three goals with respect to undergraduate students this semester then I will be satisfied on this front. I believe the teaching (i.e. holding classes at scheduled times on campus) of undergraduate classes that are too large to come to a consensus about whether to participate in political actions is the best way to achieve these goals.

(2) Graduate Students
Graduate students come to the University of Wisconsin in order to receive an education. Due to the advanced nature of the studies, the more focused professional goals and the irreplaceable role that graduate students play in the everyday teaching, research and service, graduate students require much more protection. Given the current proposals in the state budget, the graduate students in the UW-System have the most to lose and I agree with the current political activities of the TAA (Teacher Assistant Association). Consequently, I want to support graduate students in achieving both their academic and political goals for this semester.

To support the academic goals for graduate students in my classes or under my supervision I will be granting wide latitude in how any graduate student in my classes complete their academic requirements. From my experience, a common goal for a graduate course is the production of a project or paper. If a paper of sufficient quality is produced then I will consider the student to have achieved the goal of the particular class. To support the best quality of work in these situations, I will meet my graduate students at any reasonable time or location when mutually agreed upon. The goal that graduate students need to complete academic goals to continue on their professional trajectory should not be forgotten. We will not achieve complete success if these academic goals are not met.

To support the political goals of graduate students, I will not stand in the way of any decision that the TAA makes. Furthermore, I will do my best to support any decision that the TAA makes in light of my views on undergraduate education above in (1). I do not believe a general strike by the TAA would be the most productive political, tactical or strategic move at this point in time. Instead, I believe that the most productive move is to develop a rolling schedule of TA/PA outage where undergraduate education would continue in a compromised way and current political protest activities are staffed at a level to ensure full effectiveness.

Depending on the local particulars of individual classes, there must be a way where sections taught by different TAs can be combined in order to free some of them to pursue other activities. If two distinct sections taught by two distinct TAs could meet at the same location and same time then one of the TAs would be free to pursue other activities. Figuring out this type of plan would also provide an example of the potential future where class sizes are larger and the general improved learning experience provided to undergraduate students by TAs is decreased. This is one area where undergraduates are likely unaware of how they will be affected by the looming budget cuts to UW-System.

Another way of supporting TAs is to reduce or nullify any grade share that is associated with the TAs section. In other words, if there is a 20% grading aspect of a course that is dependent on TA support and this 20% of the grade is shifted and distributed to other components (e.g. exams, final paper etc.) then the contact between undergraduates and TAs could be reduced to free TA time for other activities. Again, this would provide an example of how undergraduate education at UW will look like with a reduced budget or reduced numbers of TAs. There will be less face-to-face contact between instructors and undergraduate students and this will reduce the quality of the education an undergraduate student at UW-System will receive. Note that for under most circumstances, there is little to no difference in the level of expertise in subject content between graduate students and PhD faculty in large section courses.

A final potential aspect of supporting the TAs political activities is to actually provide teaching support for them. If possible, I am willing to cover teaching responsibilities for TAs that cover areas of study that I am competent to teach in. This move would allow TAs to pursue political activities off-campus while not disrupting the teaching of classes. Note that this is not meant to replace the TAs. The teaching support should be of a form where some ‘alternative learning experience’ is provided so the undergraduates receive instruction but that the general form of the course is still disrupted.

We must all be open to the idea that support comes in many forms. Frank Herbert writes “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it” but this is only partially correct. We the faculty have the power to destroy UW-System. The undergraduates have the power to destroy UW-System. The TAs, PAs and RAs have the power to destroy UW-System. The UW-System Administration has the power to destroy UW-System. The elected politicians have the power to destroy UW-System. We all have the absolute power to destroy UW-System and thus none of us have the absolute power to save UW-System. I as a faculty member do not want to destroy UW-System and the best way to do this, in my opinion, is to keep every day activities as normal as possible while at the same time exerting as much political pressure as possible to ensure that these other factions do not destroy UW-System.

(3) Non-tenured Faculty
We must remember that there are many junior faculty members both tenure-track and non-tenure-track. I know that my current research goals are completely disrupted by the amount of time and thought that I am spending on how to ensure that UW-System is not destroyed. I willingly do this because I have tenure here and UW-Madison is my home. We can not expect non-tenured faculty to be as invested in UW-System as we are and thus we should not expect them to carry the weight of responsibility that tenured faculty do. Tenured faculty should not be remiss in our mentoring responsibilities to non-tenured faculty members. Specifically, we should check that our non-tenured faculty members’ research programs are not unduly disrupted by the current situation on campus. Furthermore, we should provide support to non-tenured faculty to help them maintain the course of excellence in research, teaching and service that will earn them tenure.

To conclude, as a tenured faculty member of UW-Madison I consider myself a steward of a part of UW-System and thus responsible for its well being. UW-System is going to face very difficult times in the near future due to the current financial crisis. I want to do as much as possible to reduce the harm to UW-System. I believe that ensuring the daily continuation of the education of both undergraduate and graduate students is one aspect to ensuring the well-being of UW-System. This is one thing that I can do. I believe that supporting political action that ensures collective bargaining rights for not only all UW-System employees but also all state employees is another action that I can do and that will reduce the harm to the UW-System.