Destruction of the Public University

May 25, 2008 | Blog

I write from the front lines. Support for public higher education isn’t merely “eroding”– dare I say it, we are being destroyed. I am employed at one of the longtime leaders of flagship universities, one that really put the public in public, and these days I have no choice but to wonder “Does the state government want me to leave?” Would they rather UW-Madison not exist?

Pardon me for being a bit upset. While my school is by no means the poorest in the state, and I am fully aware as I’m on the tenure-track I occupy a very elite position in the overall structure of faculty jobs, still, the belt tightening is getting to be a little too much. Just a few examples:

1. Our “raises.” Since I arrived 4 years ago we’ve never received more than a 2% annual increase. Today they reneged on our scheduled increase for this July, reducing it from 2% to 1%. One percent!! Thanks very much for the just over $500 bucks– that’s not even enough for a single plane ticket from Madison to Washington, DC these days.

2. Funding our grad students. They are terrific, and boy are they struggling. A very small percentage have any funding–from a teaching or research assistantship– and it’s getting increasingly more difficult to generate external funds to support them. Recently the University was forced to change policy and pass the costs of grad student tuition on to faculty research grants. So now, to hire a student, one has to budget for their stipend, their benefits, and their tuition. That eats up a whole lot of the space in grants. So much so that I have already, on one occasion, been forced to choose between funding a student, or funding myself. I am no saint, but honestly, I funded the student. Why should I have been forced to choose?

3. The lack of benefits. Don’t even get me started… 6 weeks unpaid maternity leave (the fed minimum), no domestic partner benefits, no dependent tuition waiver, no childcare assistance…

4. The departures. We’re losing great people, wonderful people, right and left. And not just to elite private schools, but to other publics. To places you really think people wouldn’t leave us for. But they do, they must, and we wave goodbye and wonder if we’re next.

Now maybe I’m taking a huge risk here in being so frank about what it’s like here and now, especially without the status of a tenured prof. Oh well. Because here’s the other side of the story: This is truly– despite it all, in spite of their best efforts to squash us– a WONDERFUL school. The students are genuine and smart, ambitious yet for the most part without egos. The colleagues (who remain) are brilliant, funny, kind people who are truly here for the work. The town is easy-going and somewhat affordable, and a great place to raise a family. The administration ain’t perfect, but it’s clearly trying. So we stick around. We hope. We survive.

We just do it on a shoestring
(“Mom, please send money– childcare is expensive. Thanks-S.”)

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Anne

    June 9, 2008

    Thank you for doing what you do and writing what you write! I'm considering Madison for grad school in Education in the future and it's great to read such wonderful insights from a professor.


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