“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai
Many of you who read Artini know me personally, so you have been subjected for the past several months to many posts on social media about what is happening to education in Wisconsin. Please forgive one more. And yes, I know this blog is supposed to be about arts and innovation, but it’s all related. Trust me.
In a couple of weeks, I will stand in front of a classroom for the first time in 9 months. I had a great sabbatical and a wonderful summer, and I think I’m ready to jump back in – at least I would be under normal circumstances. But I’m heading back into a very different atmosphere than I left in January.
Since the beginning of 2015, the state of Wisconsin has passed a budget enacting $250 million worth of cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, on top of a similar cut in the last budget two years ago (and, to be fair, other cuts in previous administrations before that). The cumulative effect of these cuts has been devastating. After years of no raises, furlough days, higher contributions to our health care and pension plans, and departmental budgets sliced and diced, there are precious few ways left to save money while still delivering a product that encourages students to keep attending. I personally said goodbye to 21 of my colleagues who accepted early retirement buyouts or found other jobs. Some of these positions will not be replaced. In my unit, Art and Design, alone, we lost our chair (who accepted a wonderful new position as Dean of Art at another school), metals professor (same person), art history professor (retiring in January) and gallery curator (retired in May). The gallery curator will not be replaced, meaning that a recent grad who was assistant curator will now be in charge of the gallery, and our unique Gallery and Museum practices program is on hold.
The misery does not end with cuts. Our governor tried to change the beloved Wisconsin Idea, deleting lines in state statute that define the purpose of the University to “serve and stimulate society” and “search for truth” and replace it with “serve the state’s workforce needs.” That proposal went nowhere fast, as did an attempt later to gut the state’s Open Records Law. But changes to shared governance and tenure policy did make it into the budget. This changes the role of faculty, staff and students from co-governors to advisors, with the Chancellor the undisputed CEO of each university. And although the UW System Board of Regents moved quickly to establish new tenure guidelines outside of state statute, the law now states that faculty members can be terminated for reasons related to budget and program, not just bad performance (and yes, you can be fired for bad performance, even with tenure).
The underlying message of all of these changes was terrifying to faculty. Put together, these cuts and policy changes said “faculty are the problem.” We are overpaid, irrelevant, and perhaps even dangerous. Right-wing commentators and websites – and even the Governor himself – suggested that faculty were lazy at best (“maybe they just need to teach another class”) and radicals at worst. That we were spending our time indoctrinating our students into liberal ideas and shutting down diverse points of view instead of doing what we are supposed to be doing, preparing our students to “serve the state’s workforce needs.”
One of my colleagues in Madison has been the subject of right-wing harassment, including being named by one blog as one of the “Worst, Looniest, Most Leftist Professors in America.” Another colleague received an e-mail at her private e-mail address calling her “what is wrong with America today,” and a third was actually told, by a stranger at a gas station (who saw her faculty parking sticker), that if “I had that much money, I wouldn’t be complaining about high gas prices” – when in fact she hadn’t complained but politely nodded assent to his comment about prices. A retired colleague of mine receives voice mails, e-mails and even death threats because, as a political and environmental scientist, he is often contacted by the media to comment on elections or environmental issues.
And I haven’t even touched on cuts and changes to elementary and secondary public schools, or the union busting, or the prevalence of tests so numerous and stressful that teachers are taught how to deal with students who vomit on test day.
All of this brings me back to Malala Yousafzai, whose quote from her speech to the United Nations in 2013 has inspired millions around the world. As we all know, Malala was shot at point blank range on her way to school in Pakistan by a Talib who was trying to punish her for speaking out for girls’ education. This summer, I read Malala’s inspiring book, and I did a lot of thinking about fear of education. I also remembered a conversation I had with a young Afghani filmmaker who visited UWGB a few years back, before Malala was shot in 2012 (I wrote about Sahraa Karimi here). Ms. Karimi had to emigrate to Slovakia to continue her education, and my students asked her about the anti-culture, anti-education atmosphere in Afghanistan at the time. She replied that the Taliban were even more fearful of culture than education: “When people are united by culture, they are less likely to be oppressed.”
When people are united by culture, they are less likely to be oppressed. One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.
I am indeed a radical, and proud to be so.