Scott Walker's hostile waters: The destruction of Wisconsin's universities damages more than the liberal academic elite

Universities are an ecosystem, and when faculty are poached and grant money dries up, everyone suffers

Published August 27, 2015 9:03PM (EDT)

  (Charlie Neibergall)
(Charlie Neibergall)

If you’re from Wisconsin, the Friday night fish fry is a big deal, and the fish you want on your plate is a yellow perch you caught yourself. But for years, the population of yellow perch has been in serious decline. Now on the verge of collapse, the future of this iconic fish is looking grim. Kind of like what is happening right now with the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, under siege from a legislative agenda that has been steadily decimating its numbers while pretending that the loss doesn’t matter and hey, maybe it’s even a good thing! Why do you care, anyways? It’s just stupid fish. There are always more of them.

Anti-intellectuals may yell “good riddance!” at the exodus of top-tier talent, but it’s the yellow perch paying the ultimate price for Gov. Scott Walker’s political actions. Ever since Walker began gutting the university system—cutting $250 million in funding from the UW system (while mysteriously finding $250 million in state funds to pay for a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks); weakening a once-prized system of shared governance; and passing a new law effectively turning tenure into a tool of a Board of Regents consisting almost entirely of political appointees -- the star faculty found itself being poached, starting with senior professors such as the fish guy, Rick Goetz. He was a lead researcher at what is now called the School of Freshwater Sciences at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he studied the yellow perch. He left for NOAA, taking his grant money with him.

Just like that, the wild fish lost the top guy working on their behalf. Fish night will never be the same.

Stop whining. One fish is just as good as anotherWho cares about the “ancient mating habits of whatever”? (The words in quotes were actually spoken by an Wisconsin assemblyman dismissively waving away faculty protesting against budget cuts.) The Yellow Perch doesn’t appear on the 2015 Wisconsin fishing calendar from Game and Fish magazine. Try walleye, or smallies! There are loads of other fish to fry! But the Yellow Perch was the “fish of the people” because it was abundant and delicious. It also used to generate annual state revenues in the millions. Its loss isn't just symbolic, it's economic.

At the School of Freshwater Sciences, professor and senior scientist Sandra McLellan routinely pulls in half a million dollars annually in outside funding. Despite the constant political framing of professors as bloviating liberal leeches, the reality is far more complex. On the flagship campus at Madison, for example, 30 percent of the total university budget is covered by outside funding brought in by the faculty. In 2009, Madison faculty brought in one billion dollars of external funding, even as the university community contributed billions more to the annual state economy. (In 2015, it was $15.4 billion.)

Funding for McLellan’s research on freshwater resources comes from a combination of government and private grants, and she estimates that this money is mostly used to fund students and create jobs. “75 percent manpower, 25 percent supplies,” she says. It’s not just professors whose jobs are being threatened, but administrative assistants, tech support, and a whole host of other necessary staff members. Working class people depend on universities for their livelihoods too.

“With our new open border policy, we will welcome all university workers from the beleaguered state of Wisconsin,” the Yes Men (a performance artist collective) declared with big fake smiles on their businesslike faces. In an Orwellian satire of the corporatization of the University of Iowa, the Yes Men’s “Efficiency Review”—a parody of what is happening in reality-- called for “improvements” such as an “Academic Fast Pass” for students willing to pay for access to better grades, and that all teachers and administrators should be renamed “Content Delivery Specialists.” Though satirical, their suggestions aren’t all that far from their current reality at Iowa, “where department chairs are already called “Department Executive Officers,” and a state senator introduced a bill that would automatically fire teachers that students disliked, followed by a Survivor-style vote-off for those hovering too close to the edge.

“I’ve never seen morale this bad, and I’ve been here since ’96,” Milwaukee professor Lane Hall told me, pointing to a “profound state of distrust” now permeating every aspect of the institution. Some are staying to swim against the political tide, but the signal word is demoralized. By decimating a budget already so thin that the faculty, Hall says, hasn’t had a cost-of-living raise in ten years, every task is infused with a sense of profound futility.

What is happening in Wisconsin is happening everywhere; it is a little parable of working in America. But as far as public university education is concerned, Wisconsin’s demise has shattered any remaining illusions that the destruction of the American university isn’t merely underway--it is nearly complete.

Yesterday, professor Chuck Rybak threw down the gauntlet, and called for fellow faculty at Wisconsin to stop going through the motions and ditch the tenure file. He writes:

“Tenure no longer exists in Wisconsin. We have entered the era of pretendure. The only moral thing to do, right now, is abolish the tenure file. If the reward for compiling the file no longer exists, then the file should no longer exist.”

By pointing out that tenure has become “pretendure,” Rybak is staking a rhetorical claim to combat political theater. His position is not altogether wrong. Though tenure still formally exists, it has been hollowed out and rendered toothless.

Tenure is too often mistaken for a sinecure, i.e. a job in name only, whereas its true function is to protect intellectual freedom for those whose work challenges prevailing power structures. Given that in April 2015, a gag order was placed on the entire staff of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, forbidding them from “working on or even talking about climate change on state time,” it is not inconceivable that an atmospheric scientist at Madison could be summarily fired simply for collecting data measuring the earth’s temperature.

Already, recruitment is suffering. It so happens that the same term "recruiting" applies both to the nurturing of game fish as well as to coaxing the best and brightest minds to join a university community. Both types of recruits need years to develop, that slowness itself an anachronism in a world that breeds farm animals to reach market maturity in months. To sportsmen, the yellow perch was never known for its fight, but for its exceptional flavor. If it can't mature properly, it's no good to anyone. But as the big fish depart Wisconsin, never to return, there are no new recruits to replace the growing void. Those that are left, floundering in hostile waters, will find it nearly impossible to grow to their full potential, leaving a bad taste in bitter mouths.

“This is the way the world ends,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” But it won’t matter in Wisconsin, because nobody will be left to teach this useless thing called poetry, and those words are gibberish. Want to go fishing for smallies?

By Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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Higher Education Scott Walker Tenure Universities Wisconsin