On October 13, President Cary Nelson of the American Association of University Professors was the featured speaker in a panel discussion on “The National Attack on Public Higher Education: Effective Strategies for Fighting Back.” The panel was organized by the Wisconsin University Union (WUU), theAmerican Association of University Professors(AAUP) and PROFS. Professor of Educational Policy Studies Sara Goldrick-Rab and former UW–Madison Chancellor John Wiley served as discussants.

Nelson, who is also a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,  sketched some of the gravest issues facing us, from corporatization of grant funding — contracts enforcing embargos on publishing research findings for up to five years, prohibitions against discussing research with colleagues, and more — to the crisis in the humanities — where he urged, as he has in print, that humanists pursue a ‘fierce humanities’ (see here).  More broadly, Nelson argued that public universities face the real danger of being dismantled by private interests who define us as serving four goals — teaching content and skills, providing socialization and credentialing. All of these, he said, can be carved up and carried out by for-profits. And none of them get at the core mission of fostering a critical, creative, educated population.

I’ve read Carey Nelson’s writings, mostly in the pages of Academe, for years, and was excited to have the chance to hear him speak here, especially given the topic and the concrete potential for connecting to the struggles we are engaged in here as part of the University of Wisconsin System.  And the AAUP has spoken often and loudly in support of our efforts to save public worker collective bargaining and fight cuts to higher ed here in Wisconsin. Nelson’s wide-ranging remarks, engaging on every point, were not a direct call to action or a nuts-and-bolts strategy session, though he’s done that too, in print, here.

In the discussion that ensued, Goldrick-Rab stressed the value of shared governance as a form of participatory decision-making in the workplace. She noted that employees who feel empowered in their workplace have much higher levels of job satisfaction and that our vibrant level of shared governance may be a factor in faculty retention on our campus.  When Nelson argued that tenure, often a “punching bag” for higher education opponents, is a necessary precondition for academic freedom, Wiley cautioned that arguments about academic freedom often fall on deaf ears outside of the academy. A more persuasive argument, Wiley said, is to make the case for tenure as a gold standard for quality control in faculty hiring and retention. He noted that faculty are in the position of choosing their colleagues for their work-lives. Knowing that their reputations will be affected by the achievements of the tenure candidates, they make well-grounded and critical decisions.

Both discussants argued that, contrary to what many think, politicians don’t by and large intend to destroy public higher education. In fact, Wiley argued, many want to support it but claim that there’s simply no money. Goldrick-Rab pointed out that polls show that the public tends to see students as the problem, not faculty and staff.

Whatever the intentions, current policy decisions are putting UW–Madison at grave risk, far worse than we realized when Nelson was speaking. I’m writing this just after the Department of Administration announcedwhat is likely to be another $113,000,000 cut to the UW System budget over the coming biennium, on top of the $250,000,000 that passed in the budget. These latest cuts, announced as a fait accompli without public discussion, fall on the University to a grossly disproportionate degree (as explained here). We’re getting down to our last chances to fight for public higher education in Wisconsin and nationally. When asked how we can fight back Nelson answered in an interview with Todd Finkelmeyer: “Just take back the campus.” We’ve been getting shelled for a long time and this panel provides some planning for a first volley in return.

[UW-Madison German Professor, Joe Salmons, reflects on Cary Nelson's recent visit to Wisconsin in light of UW-Madison's continued fight to 'take-back the campus.' What do 'fierce humanities' look like in light of another round of budget cuts?]