The Rhetoric of Unity

April 23, 2011 | Blog

I’m supposed to be on “vacation” this weekend but when news like this comes out, it’s hard to ignore….

Recently 10 UW department chairs wrote a letter in support of a policy (the NBP). They explicitly stated (at the end of paragraph one) that they did so independently: “We write on our own behalf and not as formal representatives of our departments.” Yet they signed the letter with their names, titles (e.g. chair) and department names. Furthermore, the UW Administration — and other advocates like Students for the NBP — are promoting it as indicative of widespread support from faculty and “academic leaders” and do not clarify that those directors and chairs do not write on behalf of their departments and units.

First, I’m confused. If these chairs are writing independently, and not as department chairs, why did they use their titles when they signed? Signatures from chairs are commonly interpreted as endorsements from departments, and they must know that. Were department votes solicited before the decision was made by the chairs to act alone? I’m in Sociology, and don’t think so– or perhaps I missed an email?

Second, I’m concerned. What message does this send to members of these departments who do not agree with their chairs? Now, expressing opposition to the NBP requires not only going against your Chancellor’s expressed wishes, but also those of your chair. You will have to disagree with someone your Administration is calling an “academic leader.” Let me say as someone who knows well, this is very, very risky on our campus right now. I know very few professors, tenured or not, who feel it’s safe to do so.

So let’s be crystal clear: this letter does not mean the NBP has support from these 10 departments. This letter was ONLY signed by 10 department chairs, and that ain’t much–we have at least 100. And finally, this letter is indicative of a real problem on campus right now–in an effort to “save UW” those with power are making it hard for those who lack it to express disagreement (I’m obviously an exception, and conclusions should not be drawn based on my own ill-advised actions). Worse yet, they do so with good intentions. Sadly, that doesn’t matter since the effect is the same. It allows places like the SNBP to make such claims like “[we] could not find any negative press from members of our campus community in the past week.” Amazing! I suppose the campus community no longer includes me? Beth Huang? Steve Horn? The professors writing on Sifting and Winnowing? Of course not –because much sifting and winnowing is suppressed, and replaced with fear.


  1. Reply


    April 25, 2011

    The post on SNBP highlighted opinions from the campus community that made it into mainstream media outlets, such as newspapers and state-wide news sites such as through Friday of last week. It assumes that legislators and their staff trust these media outlets as their main sources of news, and that they will get most of their news from mainstream sources. The intent, then, was to call into question whether or not Mr. Mikalsen was making up his "growing opposition" or basing it on actual pieces that had run in mainstream media outlets.

    I acknowledge that there certainly were pieces opposing the New Badger Partnership and public authority in papers this last week, but none that I could find from members of the UW-Madison campus community. However, if you are aware of any pieces that I may have missed, I would be happy to make a correction to my original post on SNBP.

  2. Reply


    May 3, 2011

    The debate in Wisconsin regarding the high tuition / high aid model versus low tuition / low aid model has been going on for some time in acedemia. In an article published last year with Najeeb Shafiq, I argued that conceptually the high tuition / high aid model has its merits...assuming that it can be properly implemented and explained to the public. Getting the higher aid to the "right" people, however, is challenging, and it can be difficult under this model to persuade low-income students that higher education will be more affordable than before.

    Many empirical studies in fact call into question the effectivenss of need-based aid to increase participation rates in higher education. Perhaps one reason is that students do not understand how aid will reduce the net price they pay because they are not sure that they will qualify or what it will do to the net price they pay. In contrast, appropriations and broad-based merit aid programs such as Georgia's HOPE scholarship can be easily understood by students (“If I get B’s in school, then I can afford to go to college.”).

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