Taking a Stand

March 8, 2011 | Blog


It is nice to see that more people at UW-Madison are waking up to the new reality– Walker isn’t the only one trying to end public institutions in this state.

We are in a tough financial situation and obviously that causes us to go into a protective crouch. We don’t want to get hurt, and so we are willing to go on the offensive to protect our young. It’s only natural.

The way we do this can be guided solely by our personal interests, or in conjunction with a set of morals and principles used to help us sort through decisions. The use of such things can help us to make difficult choices, but also is likely to make some choices more difficult. The world is a lot greyer when you have to grapple with the greater good, while also trying to do for yourself.

Take the rise of the Badger Advocates. Yesterday at Faculty Senate I asked Chancellor Martin who they were, and what interests they represented. Her reply, repeated in a tweet to me this morning, was this:

“Badger Advocates appear to be the kinds of people who support us with financial aid $$ and professorships. Forego it all?”

By way of explanation, our chancellor chose those two examples for me because I am a professor who studies financial aid and cares deeply about ensuring the ability of children from low-income families to attend college. In other words, a tailormade response. Much like the one I got when I asked for details on the new “sticker shock campaign” and how it would be evaluated. I’m the expert, she flattered me, and I could be involved in the design and/or evaluation. While I appreciate the compliment, the opportunity hardly offsets the risks created by implementation of a model no one across the country has ever found successful.

Of course, I want more funding for financial aid. Of course I would enjoy greater compensation. Of course it pains me to see my friends leave for other jobs (though truthfully many leave for reasons unrelated to compensation).

If I responded to Biddy based purely on self-interest, I would say “You’re right. We are suffering, we need more aid and more money to pay our professors, and yes, please let Republican fat cats go get what we need from the Governor.”

Sounds good.

Except, I was brought up to think about more than myself. More than my own family. More than my immediate community. I stand up for others because I know that ultimately if I do not, when I am hurting, no one will stand for me. We learned this lesson through centuries of persecution as Jews.

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Students across this nation have taken stands against their universities for accepting money from corporations and individuals representing interests that are antithetical to the institution’s mission. Most recently UW-Madison students protested sweatshop labor and got the UW to end participation in the Fair Labor Association. Students have held sit-ins, hunger strikes, stormed chancellors’ offices, etc.

Abiding by principles means doing without money rather than taking money from those who seek to hurt you and those you care about. It’s rare that the harm is clear and explicit and easy to recognize– it’s often framed as an “unintended consequence” down the road and left for generations to remedy. It’s incumbent upon us to be proactive.

Throughout these discussion try and engage in pragmatic idealism. You’ll find it life-changing.

I’ll say more about pragmatic idealism at my talk in the Wisconsin Idea Room, Education Building, EPS Conference, tomorrow, 10:45 am. See you then.

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