The Fuss and the Groan

The Fuss and the Groan

I would like to use this space to respond to the Wisconsin Governor’s press release from May 10, 2016.  In his release, the Governor claims that “the facts speak for themselves”… but facts are easy to manipulate, include, exclude or distort to serve a point of view.   These facts, then, don’t speak for themselves.  They speak in favor of a particular perspective, according to which faculty are the cause of the fiscal problems of the UW system, and faculty’s complaints are the mere “fussing” of out-of-touch elites who don’t care about students and taxpayers.

Here I will respond to the Governor’s missive, claim by claim.

“Before the faculty of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UW-M) issues their collective groan today about budgeting and ‘job for life’ tenure, it is important to highlight the facts.”

“Groan” is a strange word choice.  A groan is generally emitted by someone when they experience pain.  It is true that the “budgeting” has caused UWM pain.  Our response since learning about the severe cuts has been to ask for a role in determining the future of our campuses.  At every turn, the Regents and President Cross have made it clear that faculty participation is unwelcome.   Our response yesterday (a historic vote of no-confidence for the system president and the Board of Regents) was not a groan, but rather a last ditch effort after months of trying, to get the President and the Regents to listen to us.  As for the characterization of tenure in this quote, I would encourage the Governor to actually talk to faculty members at UWM and elsewhere.  I have never in my 18 years at UWM heard a faculty member extoll (or even talk about) the virtues of ‘job-for-life’ tenure.  Faculty do, for the most part, hold a strong belief that curricular and programmatic decisions ought to be left to faculty, with strong input from students, but with as little interference as possible from non-faculty.   “Job-for-life” is a politically charged phrase meant to anger people against faculty.  I’m sure it has worked.  For the moment I’ll leave out why it is I think the Governor has decided he wants people angry at faculty.

“Full professor salaries averaged $101,700 in 2013-14 school year. Average annual pay for all workers in Milwaukee County was $49,539 in 2014. “

I searched for the back-up to this claim in the source material the Governor’s press release cited.  I didn’t find it there.  Nonetheless, this doesn’t seem terribly off the mark.  It is however highly misleading.  Many people unfamiliar with the university faculty ranks would take the $101,700 figure to be an average of faculty salaries.  Full Professor, however, is the second highest rank (after only the  rare “distinguished professor” rank), whereas the majority of tenured professors are at the rank of Associate Professor.  The rest of the faculty is comprised of un-tenured Assistant Professors.  This situation, and the REAL average income of faculty is well explained by UWM faculty member Nick Fleisher here.  Nick also discusses the inapt comparison to the Milwaukee County average annual salary, and its oddly self-contradictory ideological underpinnings are discussed here by UWM senior lecturer Jessica McBride.

“Spending per student increased more than 40 percent from 2002-03 to 2015-16. “

This claim doesn’t include the very important information about WHO is doing the spending.  It certainly isn’t the state of Wisconsin, whose support for the UW system has decreased dramatically during this time span.  The largest source of this increase is in tuition payments by students, which have been made necessary by massive cuts during this time period.  Also, it is worth noting that setting tuition, raising tuition, and having the cap removed from tuition increases are ALL actions taken by  THE BOARD OF REGENTS and the STATE LEGISLATURE!  Faculty do NOT make those decisions.  Of course, the current Governor is not responsible for the all the cuts during this span… just the most recent and largest.  And now, of course, he has added the tuition freeze, so that UW campuses must feel real pain from the cuts.

“Faculty average student group contact hours, hours spent in classroom instruction, have dropped 20 percent from 2000 to 2013.”

“At 2.8 students per faculty, average student enrollment per instructor is currently tied for second lowest in its history since 1994. “

As Nick Fleisher again very astutely notes in the same post cited above, these are indicators of UWM’s commitment to having an internationally recognized research standing, which is reflected in the recent achievement of R1 status.  I would also add to Nick’s excellent points that these two claims by the Governor seem strangely at odds with each other.  Classroom instructional time is one of the many ways faculty interact with students.  There are considerable hours spent on mentoring, exam committees, independent studies, internships and various other valuable learning experiences where faculty and students interact.  When the ratio between faculty and students is low, this is considered a to be a good thing for students.  In fact, if the Governor’s claim is true, then UWM would be second best in the nation on this list, well ahead of many of the nation’s most prestigious universities.  In any case, it is difficult to find where the Governor is getting his information on this claim… but his statement also seems to confound or misunderstand the difference between “faculty” and “instructor”.  It is true that all faculty are instructors, but not that all instructors are faculty.  One thing that is clear:  whoever wrote these statements (if it was not the Governor himself) has only a very cursory understanding of the way universities work.


“Student enrollment has dropped nearly four times more than faculty from 2010 to 2014. “

“The number of students per faculty member has dropped slightly from 2000 to 2014.”

These statements taken together are meant to highlight the idea that faculty seem impervious to the economic conditions that surround them.  Even as enrollments drop, the logic goes, faculty numbers remain constant, so the University isn’t functioning in an economically viable way.  An inquiring mind might ask why 4 years were chosen to examine student enrollment, but “number of students per faculty member” is examined over a 14-year period.  Why not look at both numbers over the same period of time?  Could it be that a large dip in enrollments recently has caused these numbers to be skewed in favor of a specific argument?  I’m again echoing Nick’s argument here…  in terms of the Governor’s cherry-picking. Again, the Governor’s office has chosen to use a metric that is normally considered a good thing (number of students per faculty member dropping) as a bad thing.  If students are paying more (the final claims by the Governor —  I’ve already discussed the reasons behind tuition increases above), isn’t it a positive thing that they are at least getting more bang for their buck?  And yet, according to the Governor…

“Some faculty bodies, including faculty at UW-M today, appear more interested in protecting outdated ‘job for life’ tenure than about helping students get the best education possible […] The University should not be about protecting the interests of the faculty, but about delivering value and excellence to Wisconsin.” 

The Governor’s own “facts” contradict this conclusion.  Student retention and achievement of a degree are consistently correlated with faculty contact (for example here, here, here and here), and yet the Governor wants to argue that a lower student-to-faculty ratio is bad for Wisconsin students.  The Governor’s insulting portrayal of UWM faculty is not a plea for the betterment of higher education in Wisconsin, it is simply a series of errant (and often erroneous) “facts” designed to portray faculty as the source of a problem that was actually created by his unprecedented and truly unnecessary budget cuts.

The Faculty of UWM voted no confidence in the UW-system leadership on Tuesday, May 10, because, in fact, we strongly hold that the role of the system president and the Board of Regents is to fight for quality education for the students.  Rather than carry out this responsibility, system leadership has acquiesced to the Governor’s attack on the UW system, and particularly on its faculty.  In the eyes of our Governor, then, this vote of no confidence will likely be seen as a sign that his appointees are doing the job that he has asked of them.  I hope (though with little to no confidence) that this gesture by the UWM faculty will spur UW system leadership to do their real duty, to the University system, and to the people of Wisconsin, by fighting the demonization of faculty with more than just words, but rather with real resistance to the Governor’s anti-education agenda.


Paris: It is(n’t) about me!

Paris: It is(n’t) about me!


I originally created this page to write about the difficulties we are facing at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee… then November 13th happened in Paris, so I’m writing about that first.

I am grieving.

Solidarity and its malcontents

Most of my friends know that I am a faculty member in the French program of the university mentioned above.  The world of French educators in the United States is a small one… not everyone knows everyone, but there are probably not more than one or two degrees of separation from that.  And most everyone in that small world has friends (often in common) who are Parisian, or students who are in Paris, or business connections of some kind in Paris.

So, it wasn’t long after the attacks of Friday the 13th that my social media feed was blowing up with people talking about their proximity to the events in Paris.  Someone had eaten at one of the restaurants once, or had a drink in a bar across the street.   Someone had gotten his hair cut the day before in a salon that shares a doorway with the Bataclan and that same person’s spouse had two students who were at the concert, neither of whom survived.  One friend was in the vicinity of the worst part of the attacks, and no one heard from him for a while, and there was worry… then he showed up home.  There was a story of someone having gotten a ride home, one of the many small acts of heroism, where a stranger offers a kindness that on another day would seem odd, almost aggressive, but on that extraordinary day entered into the sphere of possibility.

And so on.

And there was another thread of thought that started to emerge, almost simultaneously.  It was the criticism (of the media, of the West, etc.) that similar events in African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries didn’t receive the same outpouring of attention and solidarity.  The grief expressed at the Paris tragedies, according to this narrative, was often shallow and unworldly, perhaps tinged with racism or at the very least with notions of white privilege,  and most often not very genuine…

And then there was the very sort of superficial mourning that this criticism was targeting:  a massive changing of Facebook profile pictures to one with an overlay of the French flag (introducing the specter of nationalism — the deep origin of this very mess); a bunch of new hashtags and image-based memes about how terrorism is bad, or where terrorism comes from, or where it doesn’t come from, or who does or doesn’t do it; fluff pieces about how they were lighting public buildings in cities all over the place; peace signs with a superimposed Eiffel Tower as new profile picture, and — for the most plugged in — an Eiffel Tower peace sign superimposed on a flag of Lebanon.

It isn’t about me

So, personally, all this just made me run away.  Words always fail me in times of strong emotion, especially sadness.  So I chose to say little to anyone — in person, in social media, on the phone — I just receded into a shell, waiting until these horrid feelings pass (they haven’t passed yet).  I didn’t want to get involved in the debate about who should be mourning what.  I didn’t want to get caught up in the race to see who was more well-acquainted with the areas of Paris where these atrocities occurred.  I certainly didn’t want to do anything to trivialize what had happened…  I felt it was best to just say nothing…  even though my heart wanted to scream something.

I went to two vigils.  The first one was at UW-Milwaukee, where a message of solidarity was read out in English, French and Arabic, directed at victims of terror everywhere (with Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and others all named alongside France), and music in all three languages was played.  It was altogether appropriate and fitting for the occasion.  It was raining and cold, but people stayed and gave the ceremony its due.

The second vigil was at Milwaukee City Hall, where a replica of the Eiffel Tower had been constructed on the sidewalk, girl scouts distributed cookies and hot chocolate, others distributed miniature French flags and blue, red and white carnations.  A group of students from the Milwaukee School of Languages sang La Marseillaise in French, perhaps not fully aware of the terribly warlike and xenophobic message the song’s words send in the present context.  Mayor Tom Barrett gave a short speech, in which he also named several other countries as victims of terrorism, and asked that we hold them, as well, in our memory.  Then Robin Pluer, our excellent local French chanteuse, sang La Vie en Rose.

At one point during the city ceremony, I was asked to help distribute French flags.  As the Chair of the Department of French, Italian and Comparative Literature, I suppose it was the least I could do… but I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t allow myself to make this about a flag.  I don’t like flags.  Any flags.  I think they get in the way of thinking.  So I gently refused.  And I immediately felt guilty for refusing.

“C’mon”,  I said to myself, “You could’ve helped out… after all, this isn’t about you.  This is about helping people cope with a tragedy.”

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that none of this was about me.  I like the Eiffel Tower, but not more than about 100 other things in Paris.  I like La Vie en Rose, but not as much as at least 10 other songs by Édith Piaf.  No, this wasn’t about me at all.

And that’s ok.  None of that has to be about me.

It is about me

So what is it with me talking about Paris?

It’s not a nationalistic thing, or a thing that makes me want anyone to go hunting down Muslims, or refusing them entry into ours or any other country… and it’s not a thing where I feel like Parisian lives are somehow more important (or whiter, or more civilized, or in any way better) than other lives that have been lost to terrorism (or war, or police brutality, or gang violence, etc., etc., etc.)… and it’s not a thing where I want to show other people who also have a kinship with Paris that I have a stronger kinship with it than they do… I really couldn’t care less about that.  So those are a few things it’s NOT.

But Paris IS a place that I have lived (for a total of about 2 and a half years, in stretches ranging from 3 weeks to a year…) and that makes it a place that I have called home, with many people, places, practices and perspectives that I love.


And I am gripped by sorrow for what has happened at places with which I am familiar, in the vicinity of people that I love.  And I have felt a desperate emptiness, a helplessness in the face of all this that is real, and unadorned by thoughts of politics, or religion, or race, or any other framework within which others might wish to place my grief.  I have no need to compare this real feeling of loss to that of others.  I have no way of grieving on the same level for other places that I have never called home (or even visited), even while I can intellectually grasp the inherent disparities in media coverage, and the myriad other inequities those disparities mirror.  I believe there is a difference between feeling empathy and grieving.

Empathy should be steady and strong.  It should be constant and know no favorites.

Grieving takes time.  It’s on its own schedule.  It’s a process that needs the empathy of others.