UW-Madison: Concerned, but committed (at least for now)
Why one professor says he is not jumping ship just yet
Editor's note: this article is a guest piece by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Jerlando F. L. Jackson. Jackson is the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education in the school of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis.
I am in my 16th year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I have navigated the professorial ranks as the first African American faculty member in my department and am proud to have founded the globally-recognized Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB) housed within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in the School of Education. Concurrently, I have come to understand and appreciate the institution’s history and campus culture through participation in a number of key service opportunities on campus.
Since my arrival, I have witnessed a growth in diversity among the student and faculty populations, seen the development of a Chief Diversity Office that rose as a national model, observed an organizational culture that produced gender diversity among senior leadership on campus and across the UW System, among other diversity accomplishments. I am very proud of the progress the institution has made on a number of metrics since I accepted my position here.
That said, these are troubling times for those of us that care deeply about the future of this institution, especially for those groups that historically had fragile relationships with the institution. A trio of challenges have created a “pressure cooker” environment at UW-Madison. What we are seeing here is in stark contrast to the liberal reputation that it has enjoyed for decades.
First, faculty are still stunned by the removal of tenure and shared governance from State statute. Certainly, no one has argued that UW-Madison has the worst tenure or shared governance policies in the nation. However, there is indeed legitimate “fear” among some that these changes will adversely impact the courageous research that has been conducted and lauded on our campus for decades. Thus, the current rhetoric, which challenges UW-Madison’s hallmark concept of “fearless sifting and winnowing,” is shaped around being “fearful.”
The concern is that the quality of the research will be diminished, and that faculty will find it less desirable to conduct “edgy” research. Not only that, increased administrative authority and decreased responsibility of faculty and staff in the decision making process is being interpreted as a slow removal from the process all together. UW-Madison had some of the strongest protections in the nation regarding tenure and shared governance with their placement in State statute, which made the institution to many of us “more special” to work at than other institutions.
Second, by some accounts, 44 hate/bias incidents have been reported since January, with 23 reported in the Fall semester. At a time when current events happening on college campuses provide a demarcation in time for the history of higher education, this has put an increased strain on members of those targeted minority groups. These times will be recorded alongside other historical periods of student unrest that forced institutions to hear their voices and subsequently change. College students are demanding change across this country, and UW-Madison has not been exempt from this process. Black students and others who feel threatened, have expressed fear for their safety on campus. Staff and faculty too have expressed being uncomfortable on campus and in the workplace.
Lastly, current discourse around a formal vote of “no confidence” for the UW System President is requiring a lot of campus energy to manage. The organization and consideration of a vote of “no confidence” is a very serious matter in higher education. It is the strongest message that faculty, staff, and students can send that they no longer want a person to lead or represent them. It is important to note that in recent times, individuals have been able to weather the storm of a vote of “no confidence” to remain in his or her position, but it still signals the degree of fear and unrest plaguing the campus climate over recent changes.
For the first time in 16 years, I have to be honest and say it is unclear to me what the future holds for UW-Madison. It is not clear to me what the institution is evolving into as a university. UW-Madison has made significant contributions to higher education leadership, such as the Wisconsin Idea. Our senior leadership is poised to innovate leadership practice, decision making, and institutional change by providing a blueprint on how to be responsive to major culture changing events.
However, it does not appear that tenure and shared governance will be restored as we once hoped. The number of reported hate/bias incidents continue grow. And the decision to move forward with a vote of “no confidence” has been made.
How will the university be defined going forward? Will it continue in the traditions that made it among the first to fight for academic freedom by issuing the Board of Regents’ statement that gave us “fearless sifting and winnowing,” and among the first in higher ed to have departments of African American and Women’s Studies? Or, will we be defined for how we are currently being portrayed in the media as an institution with weakened tenure and shared governance policies and a hostile environment for diverse groups?
As I watch the sky move from dark to light on this monumental day, I reflect on the events of this past academic year – juxtaposed against the rest of my time here. I am reminded that I have come to have a deep appreciation for the university through my experiences working with amazing colleagues in my academic department (Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis), through campus service opportunities vested with authentic input into key decisions, and exposure to Badger nation by interacting with students, alumni, community members, and campus friends that genuinely care about the work happening on campus.
These collective experiences have given me a special appreciation for our culture of “Forward Thinking,” shared governance, faculty and staff commitment, student involvement, and our ever-present focus that we must “sift and winnow by which alone the truth can be found.” These are special elements that have created the ethos that have lasted since the inception of the institution, and certainly since my time here. Yet, as we peer around the corner and ask what is next for UW-Madison, I find myself as committed as ever to our great university, but asking the question of what we will become, and for whom?