The Saddest Tweet of Them All

May 31, 2011 | Blog

Updated May 30, 2011–and again June 1

I’ve been watching as UW Madison moves into the post-NBP phase of life (wait, there is life after NBP?). In particularly, I’m finding the (re)framing of recent events by NBP proponents both fascinating, and disturbing.

Spin is, to some degree, expected. We can’t blame Chancellor Martin for trying to save face, or Governor Walker for that matter.

What I didn’t expect, and what upsets me most, is the self-righteousness evident in those who proclaim “we accomplished something here.” Something, they claim, UW System did not. Could not. Would not.

Sad and short-sighted, perhaps, but not surprising. On the other hand, a recent tweet from a Madison student stopped me in my tracks. On Saturday he wrote, “No #UWNBP. Disappointing. Looks like we have to be tied to the poor decisions #UWSystem makes.” Surprised at his statement, I responded, “Ever been to System? Ever met anyone there? Why do you follow blindly what u r told? #UWNBP #UWSystem.” To which he replied “It’s fun to make assumptions.”

Well, that’s sorta what I figured– the majority of people claiming failure on the part of UW System and lauding the achievements of Chancellor Martin have never interacted with System. It’s not that System is perfect — far from it. But by degrading the capabilities of the governing body of our sister institutions, one casts dispersions on the quality of education received by other students. It’s incredibly unproductive. It’s also unfair. Of course, maybe people just don’t care. I worried about that, so I wrote: “Fun, but destructive to students at other universities.”

A moment later, I got a reply: “It isn’t my job to be concerned with students at other universities.” And a few minutes after that, he added: “It was my job to maximize my education and the value of this university, if that benefits other universities too, great!”

It was like a punch in the gut, as I suddenly realized that the whole UWNBP situation is but a microcosm of the broader threat to public education.

Too many of our fellow Americans are downright compassionless.

As David Berliner wrote in The Manufactured Crisis, “true improvements in public education will not come about unless they are based on compassion…If we structure our public school system so that large groups of students are not provided equitable education, we create a host of problems….In Lincoln’s words, it has always been clear that effective reform of education must begin ‘with charity for all.'”

None other than David Brooks makes a similar statement in today’s New York Times, where he loudly admonishes college graduates “It’s not about you.” The big mistake society has made is giving undergraduates the impression the goal in life is to find themselves. Not hardly. The goal is to “lose yourself”, Brooks explain, by “look[ing] outside and find[ing] a problem, which summons [your] life.”

I guess we can’t really blame the students. After all, they are simply following the example set by people like the alumni backing The Badger Advocates. Given that I’ve already publicly called them “goons” I suppose it’s worth the risk to go one step further and say straight up that their latest press release reveals them as plain ol’ liars. Yes, I said that. They are lying. Take a look. According to their revised version of reality, Chancellor Martin spent the last year attempting to “educate” the state about the need for the New Badger Partnership (if by educate you mean tell people the version of the facts you prefer, alrighty then), working “closely and diligently” with the Legislature while UW System “fought the proposal,” worked “hastily,” opposed “real reform,” and basically did whatever was possible to undermine the thoughtful, hard work of Martin. “And although Martin worked tirelessly on the NBP, at the end of the year-long tour, she is respectful and considerate of the Joint Finance Committee and the Legislature’s desire to draft their own plan for UW-Madison and the system.” There are no words for the extent to which this is a lie, other than COME ON! (I’m not alone in saying this.) The only truth in the whole darned thing is that Martin was on a “year-long tour.”

We have been sold a bill of goods– one that paints UW Madison into a corner as an elitist, know-it-all flagship that bears no resemblance to the rest of the state. We at UW Madison should be furious that anyone–anyone–is spending money “on our behalf” to support the kinds of work The Badger Advocates are doing. That they are doing it at the behest of our leader is even more appalling. At this point, they are more than undermining our credibility with the Legislature, in fact they threaten to further smear the good name of Madison in the hearts and minds of the rest of Wisconsin. Not only have they — and she– not given up on Public Authority, they are pushing harder.

This state faces massive inequities in the provision of both k-12 and higher education. If we at UW-Madison cannot teach our undergraduates compassion for their fellow undergraduates– at all public institutions throughout the state– then we are doomed to a competitive race to the bottom. If the only route they can see to helping others is by helping themselves, we have not done our jobs.

That was the lesson I got from Twitter that day. We have failed to educate. We must do more.


  1. Reply

    only reader

    June 3, 2011

    Sara, in your analyses, you often seem to be ignoring the benefits that UW-Madison brings to the state as a whole. This school provides a kind of education, and economic benefits to the state that the rest of the UW System simply does not.

  2. Reply

    Jason Pickart

    June 4, 2011

    The problem is the other schools -- despite some of them having some very good strengths -- just aren't in the same league as UW-Madison, something that a lot of everyday people in the state as well as it seems state leaders seem to ignore. This creates a feeling that UW-Madison doesn't get the respect it deserves (i.e. it's just another UW System school except it has better sports) which does have a real world effect because a university's prestige affects employment opportunities.

    Ironically, it's partially UW-Madison's fault, as it doesn't market itself very well in state or even nationally given its lofty rankings and quality. Before transferring to UW-Madison from UW-Oshkosh, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was going to college in our hometown. He remarked that he thought Wisconsin had no "really good" schools -- I said Madison qualified as one and explained why and he was surprised. A lot of people know it's hard to get into Madison, but there's a feeling that there isn't actually a tangible reward aside from the social scene, or that Madison doesn't have excellent academics, something that's obviously false.

    Put that together with the kind of populism that is very central to Wisconsin's character which rejects any percieved elitism and it's not surprising that a lot of students at Madison were supportive of the NBP or at least neutral (as the ASM was when it voted on whether it supported it or not). I would go so far as to say that there's a feeling of resentment among some to the other UW System schools, a feeling that gets inflamed when the notion that the System schools are dragging Madison down gets put into play.

  3. Reply

    Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    June 6, 2011

    To the first commenter-- there is no lack of reporting on what Madison brings to the state. In contrast, almost no one speaks of the value of other UWs. Especially no one in Madison. I love my institution, but it doesn't need more folks to simply promote it-- we need to work on improving it, and especially its approach to undergraduates across Wisconsin.

    To Jason-- I worry a lot about how Madison markets itself to prospective students, as a social and sports experience rather than an academic one. That approach trickles down to frame their experiences as they enter the school. More faculty involvement in recruitment practices and orientation is sorely needed.

  4. Reply

    only reader

    June 6, 2011

    Sara- On your blog, I do sometimes see a lack of acknowledgement of what UW-Madison brings to the state. Obviously, the university educates undergraduates, but it is also much more than an undergraduate education machine. I haven't seen that being widely appreciated in the anti-NBP perspectives I've seen published here and elsewhere.

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