After American Exceptionalism

Final Lecture, History 434, Spring 2017

For my students

 

What is at stake in American Exceptionalism, and what happens if we give it up?

We began this class by asking whether the United States could be considered an empire.  This was a difficult question, and we had protracted debates.  Some people wanted to resolve the issue by saying that the United States has done things that could be defined as imperial, but not in the same ways or for the same reasons as other empires.  We read historian Jeremi Suri’s contention that U.S. support for “nation building” around the globe is and has been distinct from an imperial project.  Of course, this position is definitive American exceptionalism, because it promotes the idea that U.S. wields power differently, somehow, than other nations did and do.

Justification for expansion and conquest goes back to Puritan invocations of the first testament in asserting their mission to make a “City on a Hill” as a beacon to the world. Reviewing American history from discovery and colonization to the founding of the republic, the push first West across the Mississippi and then across the Pacific Ocean, we began to work with empire as an analytic framework. This lens allowed us to compare episodes in national expansion: the colonization of North American Indian nations, the annexation of Hawai’i, the conquest of the Philippines.

Some of the students who most resisted the idea of the United States as an empire stopped coming to class around this time.  I was sorry to lose them, because I think of the history classroom as a place to practice the democratic art of debate. But I also wondered whether they stopped coming to class as a way of protecting something of great importance to them.

At around this time in the semester, we were fortunate to have a classroom visit from historian Daniel Rodgers, who was on campus to deliver a public lecture.  Rodgers writes that exceptionalism creates a bounded national identity, a sense of who is and who is not included.  “It manufactures an artificially homogenous ‘we’ bounded off, by the sharpest of imagined contrasts, from a universalized ‘they’ in the world beyond[*].”[†] Letting go of exceptionalism, then, is challenging, because it means losing a particular idea about our identity.

Exceptionalist narratives of national identity are exclusive. They bound the nation and reinforce both geopolitical and social boundaries. As a result, some people have more access to the symbolic and actual goods of American exceptionalism than others. At the same time, these narratives create the moral certainty of national virtue.

A deep ambivalence runs through contemporary accounts of the initial period of overseas expansion at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Many commentators took up the “white man’s burden” as the mantle of world leadership inherited by the United States from Europe.  An exceptionalist view of overseas expansion saw it as the logical extension of American “manifest destiny” to extend Christian civilization and the mission of the City on the Hill. The United States would be a different imperial power, one blessed with divine mission.

Other contemporary commentators debated the merits of acquiring lands and governing people outside the boundaries of the continental United States.  For some, colonial acquisitions in the Caribbean and Pacific threatened to challenge American identity by bringing racially different populations under the flag.  Often ignoring that the existence of the United States was founded on the conquest of Indian nations, others questioned whether a nation founded on a democratic ideal should rule territories acquired through military conquest. Both of these anti-imperialist positions were also exceptionalist: they held that the United States had a particular mission and identity in the world that might not be compatible with the practices of empire.

In this same historical moment, W.E.B. DuBois made his now famous connection between practices of inequality and segregation operative in the United States at the time and the inequalities perpetrated by empire.  DuBois posed “the problem of the color line, not simply as a national and personal question but rather in its larger world aspect in time and space.” Recognizing that the goods of American exceptionalism were not equally distributed, DuBois noted that African Americans who built the nation were largely excluded from its benefits.

While he pinpointed the inequality prevailing in the United States – overseas territorial acquisitions commenced at a period of ascendant racial violence throughout the nation– DuBois did not limit his analysis to the necessity of Black inclusion in the American exceptionalist project. Instead, asserting the existence of a color line operative beyond the nation, DuBois was also among the creators of a key, internationalist alternative to exceptionalism.   We noted his involvement in founding the first Pan-Africanist Congress of 1900. Pan Africanists viewed empire and white supremacy as global projects requiring a unified, international response.

As the United States became engaged in maintaining territorial dependencies as well as broad economic and political interests abroad, internationalist responses also multiplied.  We read historian Christina Heatherton’s account of how the incarceration of Mexican anarchist revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon at Leavenworth, Kansas occasioned the founding of a “university of radicalism” in the prison. In this international “convergence space,” suspected dissidents of a multitude of backgrounds and ideologies exchanged ideas and information: “Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, a container of dissent against racial capitalism and militarism, became a site through which the fluidity of the racial regimes within and across borders was made legible.”  [‡]

The internationalism of the Pan Africanist Congress and the “university of radicalism” provided a counterpoint to exceptionalist narratives of U.S. expansion in the early twentieth century.  As Spring Break approached, with its traditional Wisconsin snowstorm, one student asserted that the United States became far less international between the world wars, retreating into what many historians have described as a period of “isolationism.”

This insight about isolationism is part of a particular U.S. historical narrative.  In this narrative, Americans grew tired of war and international engagement after both world wars, retreating instead into material and nation building concerns.  This is an exceptionalist historical narrative, focusing on the particular progression of the nation with respect to the rest of the world.

I thought about the 1920s, often taught as a decade of prosperity and pleasure: Fordism and flappers.  It is, of course, also a decade in which U.S. forces were deployed multiple times to the Caribbean, often remaining in countries like Nicaragua and Haiti for decades, installing and backing regimes friendly to national economic and political interests; a decade in which then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover commenced the negotiations that resulted in the Firestone Natural Rubber Corporation’s plantation in Liberia.

The fluorescence of consumer goods in the interwar period was very much a global enterprise.  If bananas appear in Faulkner’s accounts of early twentieth century rural Mississippi, it’s because someone imported them.  And when the United Fruit Company imported bananas, they also occupied countries, built infrastructure, suppressed labor unions and peasant uprisings, and propped up despotic regimes favorable to the U.S.  “Fordism” as an American way of labor and life depended on cars, which ran on tires; the rubber for these tires came from Africa.

We have spent a lot of time since Spring Break – not that it has gotten much warmer since then, though at least there’s no snow on the ground, now that it’s May– exploring the international excursions that facilitate the free flow of bananas, oil, rubber, and other resources.  Under the rubric of fighting communism, making the world safe for democracy, continuing the civilizing mission and protecting that City on the Hill, the United States has been relentlessly international, extending influence, culture and arms around the world. The development of the national security state brought the force of American exceptionalism to bear in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Congo, Chile, to name only a few.

We looked at the brief tenure of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of Congo, in 1960.  Products of internationalist collaboration and planning, the victory of the Congolese National Movement was part of a wave of decolonization movements in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.  While justified in exceptionalist terms, the presence of the CIA in places like the Congo during the Cold War was part of an international, imperial pushback against these liberation movements.

(I want you to remember how difficult it was to find information about this movement; how the struggles of working men and women to take ownership of their lands, labor and country seem to have disappeared with the assassination and literal liquidation of Lumumba. There are parallel stories of struggle and even victory that are occluded by the exceptionalist frame. It’s important that certain narratives seem to crowd out, even extinguish, other ones.)

U.S. global endeavors continue to be explained and understood through the framework of American exceptionalism, from the “Cold War coups” we have spent time examining to the renewed emphasis on the War on Terror and making America democracy safe from the world.  We are repeatedly told that this exceptionalism can make us safe in a dangerous world. Just as it did in the early 20th century, exceptionalism creates boundaries, making clear who belongs and who does not; recently issued executive orders banning refugees and enhancing federal deportation efforts are only one part of this. We are told that these things are necessary for our safety from terrorists and criminal “aliens”.

So what would happen if we gave up exceptionalism?

Rodgers writes: “The alternative to exceptionalist history begins with recognizing the immense amount of slippage in the real world between the categories of “here” and “elsewhere.” It requires not only dismantling the overgeneralized and overimagined rules of elsewhere but also realizing that the elsewhere is present at home.”

We read Andrew Friedman’s book, Covert Capital,  which takes a distinctly non-exceptionalist approach.  Friedman argues that the landscape of CIA office buildings and suburban domestic spaces developed in dialogue with the transnational military culture of Viet Minh Saigon.  Premised on white supremacist practices of land tenure and segregation, these landscapes evolved transnationally, so that when the first wave of Viet Minh refugees arrived in Arlington, they took their place in a culture already familiar to them. The suburban landscape of northern Virginia was shaped by and shaping of empire.

During class presentations earlier this week, we learned of a fairly little known, early CIA effort: the overthrow of President Shukril al-Quwatli in Syria in 1949.  (My vote for least known coup.)  The United States opposed al-Quwatli because of his resistance to the construction of a pipeline from the oilfields of Saudi Arabia to the ports of Lebanon.  After a bloodless coup, Al-Quwatli was jailed, ushering in an era of international intrigue and regime changes ultimately leading to the ascendance of Hafez Al-Assad, father of the current Syrian ruler Bashir Al-Assad.

So here is something we can learn from letting go of exceptionalism.  The “bloodless coup” performed in service of oil pipelines is newly familiar to us in the U.S., in the wake of the clearing of Oceti Sakowin camp on Standing Rock reservation.  We could say as Malcolm X did when John F. Kennedy was assassinated that this represents the chickens coming home to roost, as the national guard deployed militarized force against water protectors from all over the world; we could say it is history come full circle to return to the Dakota frontier.  One of the lessons of Oceti Sakowin this past year is about global interconnection and the human need for water: in Flint, in South Dakota, in Somalia, in Ecuador: everywhere.

And this is what we get when we let go of exceptionalism: connection and shared history. And it is this shared history that can help us move forward. In the words of poet Aurora Levins Morales:

This time we’re tied at the ankles.
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.

This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none. 

Thank you for staying the course in this class and making it to this final lecture.  Thank you for being an awesome class and being ready to debate and disagree and learn. This is, in part, what democracy looks like.

[†] Daniel T. Rodgers, “American Exceptionalism Revisited,” Raritan; Fall2004, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p21.

[‡] Christina Heatherton, “University of Radicalism: Ricardo Flores Magon and Leavenworth Penitentiary,”American Quarterly, Volume 66, Number 3, September 2014, pp. 557-581; p. 563.

After American Exceptionalism

#SanctuaryCampus!

sanctuary-campus

…it means nothing…

…it means everything.

…It’s purely symbolic…

…it will get us in trouble.

 Rumors swirl about the current movement to adopt sanctuary campus policies in universities and K-12 schools.  Emerging from immigrant rights and students of color organizations, the #SanctuaryCampus movement responds to threats made against immigrant and Muslim communities during the presidential campaign, and to the skyrocketing incidences of hate crimes since the election in early November. A majority of these hate crimes are taking place in schools and on university campuses.

This week, the UWM Faculty Senate will consider a Sanctuary Campus resolution. [Adopted unanimously 12/15/16.] Inspired by the work of the UWM student group, Young People’s Resistance Committee, on a petition that is currently circulating,  a group of faculty collaborated to draft this resolution. The resolution asks the administration to affirm and enhance the campus’ guiding values on behalf of the many students, faculty and staff who are members of groups that have already been targeted for harassment and hate crimes and who fear they may be subject to repressive regulations, deportation, or forced registration: immigrants and international students, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, people of color.

What is at stake here is nothing less than whether universities can continue to be places of public access to education and the exchange of ideas.  The #SanctuaryCampus movement recognizes that the mounting climate of intolerance and divisiveness impedes open access to work and study.  At the same time that we have witnessed assaults on academic freedom affecting research and teaching at UWM, many of our students and colleagues are becoming vulnerable to repression and harassment. Further, we acknowledge that these impediments may well increase in the coming months and years. Recognizing that it is difficult to predict the future, we nonetheless call upon our administration to respond to the current climate of fear and division by becoming preemptive and proactive in our collective defense.

The Sanctuary Campus resolution seeks support for undocumented students, some of whom who may face loss of access to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, those who may have more trouble negotiating visas and international travel, those who may face harassment on or off campus.  Further, we call on the campus administration to direct UWM police to decline to assist with immigration raids.

The administration fears that adopting a Sanctuary Campus policy might compel them to violate federal immigration law.  In fact, it does not: the resolution acknowledges that in the case that the Department of Homeland Security or other federal agency presents a legal warrant, campus police are compelled by law to cooperate with them. Declaring our campus a “sanctuary campus” communicates the message that our campus prioritizes the well-being of students, staff and faculty, and plans to do everything within its powers to protect their rights as such.

The idea of a “sanctuary campus” emanates from the Sanctuary Movement, a faith-based movement that sheltered refugees from the “Dirty Wars” in Central America in the 1980s.   In 1982 Milwaukee became the first Catholic Archdiocese to embrace this movement, which eventually took root in Protestant and Jewish congregations as well. The Sanctuary Movement took inspiration from “Cities of Refuge” in the Old Testament, in which individuals pursued for crimes committed in error could find refuge, justice and even forgiveness. Those taking part in the Sanctuary Movement risked violating some aspects of federal law because they felt that their faith called them to protect the vulnerable.  Though it does not call for violating  the law, #SanctuaryCampus responds to a similar urgency.

In the past decade, a New Sanctuary Movement has once again emerged from faith based communities.  Starting in 2006 with the well-publicized case of Elvira Arellano, who took sanctuary in a Chicago church until she was arrested and deported, the New Sanctuary Movement offers support and solidarity to the thousands of people faced with the reality of deportation.  In Milwaukee, Muslim, Jewish and Christian congregations participate in the New Sanctuary Movement, which holds monthly services as well as vigils in front of the local Immigration Customs Enforcement agency.

A Sanctuary City movement has swept the country.Close to fifty cities around the nation have joined this movement, declining to sign up for the federal 287(g) program, which asks local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Both the city and the county of Milwaukee have ratified sanctuary policies.

Like the word “amnesty,” “sanctuary” has become a charged term, partly because of the success of the Sanctuary Movement. Politicians like president-elect Donald Trump and Milwaukee County sheriff Dave Clark claim that to provide sanctuary is to encourage and to shelter crime.  Allegations like these foster fears that creating a sanctuary campus may invite political retribution.  In Georgia, one state legislator responded to an attempt to create a sanctuary campus at Emory University by threatening to pass an anti-sanctuary bill defunding the campus of state revenues. These threats enhance fears on and off campus.  But an attempt to pass an “Anti-Sanctuary Cities” bill failed in Wisconsin last year.  And even if such a policy were to revive and succeed, the campus would have sufficient time to adjust any policies deemed out of line.

Clearly, as a public institution, the state university system of Wisconsin cannot establish as its official policy the violation of state and federal law. We can, however, make it the position of our campus that all are welcome here; we can also make it clear that peaceful civil disobedience in pursuit of personal security and social justice is not inimical to our work. By protecting our collective rights to education, #SanctuaryCampus ensures that the boundaries of the university continue to embrace the entire state, thereby realizing the Wisconsin Idea.

 

 

 

 

 

#SanctuaryCampus!

Everyone Deserves a Job for Life

It’s a refrain in the endless attack on education: ‘no one deserves a job for life.’  The phrase is meant to convey outrage against the tenure system. It summons images of feckless educators goofing off on the public’s dime, job security making us deaf to the injured cries of our students and rebukes from school administrators alike.

Implying that good work can only be motivated by fear, this view promotes a dim view of human nature. Such poorly documented negativity is contradicted by abundant evidence that people with job security put in hours of their own time to do the job well.

So let’s entertain the opposite idea for a moment.  Let’s say that job security is widely productive, that everyone deserves a job for life. Everyone should have the opportunity for meaningful work with a reasonable degree of security.

Everyone deserves a job for life.  The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included “just and favorable” conditions at work and protection against unemployment as basic human rights. This visionary document also asserted broad access to education as a fundamental component of what it called “the dignity and worth of the human person.”

Job security does not make employees less likely to work hard. To have job security is to have a sense of ongoing possibility at work.  This possibility breeds investment, not slacking.  Creativity emerges from employees having a stake in our place of employment; enterprise arises from our dreams of a future.

Ask any educator when she started planning for the school year and you’ll hear about plenty of time spent off the clock during the summer months. Such unpaid labor is not extracted by coercive metrics of assessment, by high-stakes testing. It emerges out of reflection about the past year, from hopes of doing it better. These ambitions make labor meaningful.

Asserting the importance of job security is not equivalent to saying that everyone deserves a job no matter what.   Like any other labor arrangement, the tenure system includes processes for dismissal and for employee grievance.  Further, as I have argued elsewhere about staff responses to imposed austerity in Wisconsin, employees who are invested in their workplace want to work hard to ensure its success, even in difficult times (see my “Skeleton Crew: Or, Adventures in Austerity Math”).

When politicians talk about “education for job readiness” do they really mean to call for the creation of a disposable labor force? Visions of a collective stable and prosperous future implicitly include job security. No one dreams of a work life continually ruptured by downsizing and restructuring for themselves or for their children. But this is, increasingly, what is available.

As Ben Casselman points out, when people today wax nostalgic about the stable employment of the mid-twentieth century  − the “good manufacturing jobs” touted by so many politicians −what they are really longing for is the security that resulted from a long history of labor organizing.  Since this much-touted heyday of American manufacturing, unions have been purposely eviscerated and blamed for economic downturns. The job security vouchsafed by the labor movement is blamed for the loss of stable employment. In reality, job loss has been caused by enforced austerity in the funding of public institutions and by corporate choices to restructure and/or move operations overseas, away from labor protections like job security.

Currently, to mention teachers’ unions in a conversation about education is to risk being barraged by largely unsubstantiated fables of “dead wood:” horror stories about entitled teachers taking advantage of easy and stable jobs at the expense of our children.  Such cautionary tales blame educator job security for current problems in our education system.

The attack on tenure has been part of a broad assault on public support for education, K-PhD. Animosity towards educators leads to the concentration of power in the hands of management.  This is evident in the move to “take over” Milwaukee Public Schools, transferring control away from teachers, students, and parents to an unelected board. At the same time, despite imposed fiscal austerity, the amount spent on administration in higher education continues to increase exponentially.

Administrative power increases as job security declines. Management in every sector, education included, prefers flexible, meaning disposable, labor.  The broad access to job security and education envisioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comes to seem like a long-gone fantasy.  As is becoming dramatically evident at Long Island University and elsewhere, educators are easily replaced, even if our skills, commitment, and knowledge are not.

Workers can always be replaced:  we learn that again and again as “flexible” policies are used to deracinate public institutions and eliminate experienced workers.  But the stability and vision created by longstanding systems of job security are not replaceable.  There will always be people to do the job, though increasingly, we do them in circumstances that undermine us.

Everyone deserves a job for life. All workers deserve job security. More broadly, we all benefit from stable institutions and educators inspired to work hard for our collective future.

Everyone Deserves a Job for Life

Skeleton Crew

Or, Adventures in Austerity Math

Skeleton-Crew

Image borrowed from:http://paranormalss.com/photos/skeleton-crew/

I learned last week that another colleague is retiring.  Like others who left before her, this colleague holds down an ample share of our collective work. She teaches popular courses in more than one area and mentors many graduate students. She is a reliable voice in History Department meetings and committee work. Having spent most of her career at UWM, she understands the intricacies of the institution.  The loss of her professional savvy and institutional memory −what we might call her knowledge capital− will be substantial.

In normal times, we would go about the process of filling the gap left by such departures.  The department would conduct a national search, at the end of which we would hire a historian who could begin to fill the shoes of the senior colleague.  While lacking the experience and institutional memory of the person retiring, the new colleague would bring fresh historical perspectives and methods and, over the seven years before coming up for tenure, would hopefully become a vital part of the community of scholars that makes up a university department.

But these are not normal times.  Over the past five years, as colleagues have retired or left for other jobs, they have not been replaced. That means there are whole swaths of the globe, entire historical epochs, for which we have no historian at UWM. Before this year, the department was able to hire part-time, contingent faculty to cover some of these areas.

With the recent round of cuts imposed by the legislature, we cannot afford to hire even poorly paid contingent faculty to cover the widening gaps in our curriculum. What we have then, in many if not most departments, constitutes a skeleton crew: a reduced group of us still staffing the institution, trying to make sure that courses get taught so that students can get educated, complete their programs, and graduate.

What does it mean that my department, like many others at UWM and around the UW system, increasingly lacks the personnel to cover key areas?  Does it mean that popular courses, like those on the history of the Middle East once taught by a colleague who departed for greener pastures three years ago, will go untaught?

Of course not. It means that we will work harder, teach more, develop unfamiliar classes.  Surely this is one of the meanings of “flexibility” as repeatedly intoned by UW President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents: we are stretching, becoming more limber, reaching far out of our fields of expertise and comfort zones to make sure our students get the courses they need. What could be wrong with that?

In 2012, after Act 10 and a punishing round of budget cuts to already strapped K-12 Milwaukee Public Schools, I remember hearing how few adults would now be present at any given time at my daughter’s K-8 school.In an emergency, increased class sizes along with layoffs of teachers and professional staff could easily translate to mayhem, with far too few adults attempting to herd crowds of rowdy and/or terrified kids to safety.

That image stuck with me. It’s a good way to envision  the role of public employees during a time of crisis-level austerity. We are besieged by assaults on the institutions we serve; we work hard, against nearly impossible odds, to keep our charges safe.

So of course we will step up, my colleagues and I. We will be flexible, crafty and ingenious; we will do more with less knowledge capital. Despite the fact that our salaries already lag well behind those at peer institutions, we will take on the additional work necessary teach regions and eras for which we lack preparation and/or the language skills to read the pertinent literature and primary sources. And if I know UWM students, they will tolerate this with their characteristic grace and good humor.

But there is a big problem with the skeleton crew approach. UWM’s dual mission of access and research is not an either or proposition. The point of having an urban access campus is to make Research 1-quality facilities widely available to students in Milwaukee and beyond.  That is UWM’s specific role in fulfilling the Wisconsin Idea.

I recently found myself explaining the research university to an incoming PhD student. I told him how scholarly research finds context in the university classroom.  I bring my research expertise into the classroom, but I am also listening to my students to see whether what I am saying makes sense to them.  Listening to students, in turn, changes how I conduct my scholarly work. When it comes to educating all of us − undergraduates, graduate students and faculty −the system works remarkably well at circulating and increasing knowledge capital.

The skeleton crew is a bad deal for faculty, who now must take on additional and uncompensated labor keeping the university going.  But it’s even worse for our students.  It’s not that they won’t get the best that we can give them.  It’s just that we are now unable to give them what they signed up for: a research 1-level, public education. Running the university with a skeleton crew means less knowledge capital to go around. And that cheats our students.

UWM students deserve the best that a fine research university like UWM has to offer; they deserve to get the courses they need when they need them, so that they don’t have to spend costly additional semesters completing their educational programs.

So how do we exit the crisis? How can we  put a little meat on the bones of the skeleton crew?

The answer is quite simple.  It relates to the budget that the Board of Regents will discuss this week, to the tuition freeze that Governor Walker brags about, and, most importantly, to the upcoming biennial budget for the state of Wisconsin.  We must increase state investment in the UW System, funding the freeze so that students get what they pay for.  Until this takes place, we will be running with a skeleton crew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skeleton Crew

The No Confidence Movement

Slide2

As of last week, faculty and staff at the majority of campuses in the UW system have voted to express our lack of confidence in the direction pursued by Board of Regents and system president Ray Cross. This historic wave of resolutions has now been ratified at seven of the thirteen four-year campuses, and by a vote of the faculty senate representing the thirteen UW Colleges.

Because I am one of the three faculty senators who introduced the resolution that ultimately resulted in the historic, full faculty vote at UWM on May 10, I am often asked what it is that we want. Are we asking Cross to resign? Do we expect the current Board to be replaced by different Regents?

But the sum of what has taken place across the UW system this May is bigger than its parts. Taken together, these resolutions are part of a social movement emerging across Wisconsin and beyond. Social movements encompass and exceed the hopes and needs of their constituencies, becoming places for the creation of new ideas, strategies and alliances. That is what is taking place across the UW system.

Protesting the current institutional climate of politically manufactured austerity, this movement promotes the broad, democratic vision originally expressed in the Wisconsin Idea. The recent, court-mandated release of emails from Governor Walker’s office offers clear evidence of the political assault on this hallowed idea, which holds that the teaching and research mission of the public university should benefit the entire state.

No confidence resolutions have spread like wonky wildfire across UW governance groups. These resolutions enact democratic shared governance, another key principle of the Wisconsin Idea. Taking place through shared governance channels, these votes articulate our collective devotion to the Wisconsin Idea and the institutions we serve.

Faculty, staff and students across diverse UW campuses have united in our defense of the Wisconsin Idea. Penned by UW Madison American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local president Chad Alan Goldberg, the initial resolution passed the Madison faculty senate through collaboration between governance, the AFT, and the American Association of University Professionals (AAUP). Subsequent resolutions have been adapted to respond to specific issues at different campuses.

At UWM, for example, the faculty resolution was the result of collaboration between AFT, AAUP and faculty governance. After the unanimous faculty vote, academic staff governance crafted their own resolution. The Academic Staff Senate became the first academic staff governance body in the UW system to pass such a measure. By definition, academic staff do not enjoy the protection of tenure: their resolution stands as a particularly brave and principled clarion call. The power of the no confidence votes at UWM emanated from the cooperation of different governance groups, along with the involvement of our AAUP and AFT chapters.

Support for democratic public education is not limited to UW faculty and staff. Student groups such as BlackOut at UW-Madison and Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES!) at several UW campuses assert the civil right of access to education for all students.

Off campus, the No Confidence Movement finds allies in the push back against the degradation and privatization of k-12 education. Organizations like Schools and Communities United and Parents for Public Schools defend public funding and local control of education. These issues parallel those articulated in the Wisconsin Idea: democratic shared governance, academic freedom and educational access.

Across the country, public investment in education has declined. A study by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that since 2008, states across the country have reduced their spending on public higher education by 17%, at the same time that tuition has risen by 33%. Even with the tuition freeze currently in effect in Wisconsin, the cost of a college education is burdensome and puts a degree out of reach for many students and their families. The effects of the cuts may well mean that it takes longer and costs more for students to complete their degree programs, as advising becomes scarcer and departments and programs are forced to cut back on course offerings.

Countering decades of austerity, mounting student debt, and declining public funding for education, the No Confidence Movement supports lowering tuition and increasing state investment in education. We oppose the conjoined forces of imposed austerity and corporate managerial control of education, which have resulted in high administrative costs and threaten the quality of research and teaching at UW.

Instead, the No Confidence Movement supports the time-honored values promoted by the Wisconsin Idea: hard work, democratic access, public service and free inquiry. We call on our elected representatives to fund the freeze by restoring state support for public education.

Social movements respond to traumatic losses by asserting shared dreams as collective possibilities. The No Confidence Movement in Wisconsin has begun this process by making educators and students protagonists in the long conflict over public education in our state and nation. Collectively, we have great confidence in a fully funded and democratically governed system of public education, kindergarten through PhD.

 

The No Confidence Movement

Fear Itself

fdr

It’s hard to explain the constant fear to folks living outside of the particular terrordrome that UW has become in the past year and a half.

I frequently wake up in the middle of the night, terrified that I will lose my job: because of the program closures now legitimated for educational OR economic considerations; because of something I have said publicly; because of something I don’t even know about yet but that is out there and coming for me, for my job, for the economic security of my family. Recently, during one of these night terrors, my husband, also a UWM professor, listened to my fears of reprisal for being outspoken at a campus meeting and then said, consolingly: “Oh, baby. That’s not why you’re going to get fired.”

As a tenured professor I have much more job security many other UW employees. Because of the funding cuts, many contingent faculty and staff stand imminently to lose their appointments, or economically vital percentages of them. But the current onslaught against academic freedom, shared governance and general funding for public education makes all university labor more precarious, regardless of professional status.

I am not alone in this fear. A lot of us UW employees lay awake in the night, worrying: What does the future hold for us?  Should we be looking for other jobs? Other fields? Other lives entirely?  Each announced departure of cherished friends and colleagues makes those of us sticking it out wonder what on earth we are doing.

History, at least, names the rats clever enough to leave a sinking ship. Those who stay on board are not mentioned.

In his first inaugural address in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously addressed the fear gripping many in the United States because of the Great Depression.   He described “the nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” and then proceeded to diagnose the nation’s woes as the result of economic inequality. FDR prescribed a course of hard work: collective action for national recovery.

Maybe FDR was right about that.  At least, since the wave of no confidence resolutions began two weeks ago, I have been sleeping much better.   It is like something familiar is suddenly missing, like when you lose a tooth and your tongue continually drifts to that part of your gum, searching for it.  However temporarily, the fear is gone.

Let me be clear: I do not think a wave of no-confidence resolutions will fix eighteen months of direct assault on UW, nor the decades of underfunding that preceded them. I do not underestimate the forces arrayed against public education, public employees in general in this state, nor the fact that Wisconsin policymakers crib from a well-funded and widely shared playbook on austerity politics and shock doctrine. Which is to say, I am confident that this hiatus is temporary and that my well-f0unded fear will return.

But what we have seen in the past two weeks is precisely what FDR called for in his inaugural address: an enhanced spirit of solidarity, or what Roosevelt called “interdependence.” Across the UW system, different campuses with widely divergent resources have thrown in together to strategize and craft no-confidence resolutions. This work has been recognized in the media as well as on the street. Suddenly the idea that budget-cutting politicians speak for a public that “hates” the university and is unwilling to support it is much less viable.

Across the UW system, across the state, across K-12 and higher education, the most important resource that we have in this long and difficult struggle is one and other.  That is how we will survive this time, or even sleep through the night.

It takes courage for people to organize and vote for no confidence resolutions. But these votes are how we begin to stand together to defend democratic public education against the cruel inequality FDR diagnosed over eighty years ago. Like the man said, the only thing to fear is fear itself.

 

 

 

Fear Itself

No Confidence!

OLB

Last week, faculty at UW-Madison, La Crosse and UW-River Falls voted in favor of resolutions of no confidence in University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents. A wave of such resolutions will sweep across the state in coming weeks, on the docket in faculty bodies in  Milwaukee, Green Bay, Superior, Stevens Point and at the UW-Colleges.

A symbolic action, these resolution highlight faculty alarm over the effects of fiscal austerity on the university system.By publicly decrying the current direction of the UW system, we collectively affirm the best and most democratic values of the Wisconsin Idea: maximum access to education for everyone.

Like many of my colleagues, I have had no confidence in the current regime for over a year: from the first announcements of the massive budget cuts in January, 2015, to the passage of Act 55 in June of that year, to Ray Cross’ ill-starred advocacy of turning the university into a public authority, to the false governance promises of faculty bodies convened, and then deliberately ignored and downright circumvented by the Board of Regents.

But we are used to the slow process of shared governance. So we have been patient, assessing the situation, trying to actively participating in improving it: waiting it out.

We are no strangers to hard work.We have attended listening sessions and meetings, participated in task forces and organized teach-ins, researched and written op-eds and fact sheets and press releases.

And now, in concert with colleagues across the system, with consciousness of all we have lost and stand to lose,  it finally makes sense to say it: No Confidence, rippling across the state, and beyond.

Voting for these resolutions, faculty reject the austerity imposed by the Wisconsin state legislature on public higher education.  For example: state monies funded 40% of UWM’s budget in 1996; currently, they account for 13%, making UWM more reliant on tuition than some private colleges. Dwindling funding of our public university system has resulted in a terrible math, in which education becomes a  politically imposed zero sum game. In order to survive the spread sheets, each campus, each college, each department and program must calculate immediate savings above any long-term endeavor or educational objective.

In the cruel political calculus of austerity, a state-mandated freeze on tuition has responded to widespread and justified discontent with the increased cost of a college education.  But because this freeze has been accompanied by radical cuts to public funding, students are likely to pay the already too-high tuition, only to find their access to the resources they need to succeed in college severely limited. This, in turn, compels them to spend more time completing their education, which then costs them more in tuition.  Funding the freeze instead would mean increasing state appropriations for education to lower tuition and increase student access to the fine education still afforded by the UW system.

The terrible math of austerity is accompanied by a moral language that begins with the state legislature and Board of Regents and reverberates on down, through  regents, system and campus administrators into departments, offices and classrooms. As my colleague Chuck Ryback points out, this moral language elevates supposed fiscal values like the much-vaunted “flexibility” over non-market based, educational calculations. The moral language of austerity pits education and educators against budget-slashing legislators and those who carry their water, like the Board of Regents and the UW System administration.

By voting no confidence, faculty lift up an alternative moral language to the one imposed by fiscal austerity.  Universities in states like Missouri and Alabama have recently repudiated austerity in favor of funding public education.This is possible for Wisconsin as well.

We affirm that it is a sacred trust to work as a public employee, because it means that our labor serves and is funded by the people of our state.  In light of that sacred trust, we assert the values of the Wisconsin Idea: that maximizing access to an education driven by the fearless “sifting and winnowing” of research is part of a functioning democracy .

Over the long course of the past year and a half, we have seen countless examples of democracy in action, in defense of the UW system and of public education in our state.  Widespread public outrage caused Governor Walker to falter in his initial attempt to change the language of the Wisconsin Idea. Across the system, students have protested the effects of austerity, rallying against the cuts and tuition hikes. In February, forty  Blackout protesters attended the Board of Regents to advocate for students of color at UW; they were not allowed to speak or even to give their list of demands to the convened body.

By voting no confidence, we side with the students,  who know that austerity limits their futures.  This moment belongs to all of us. Our dynamism and creativity stands against the  grim horizon offered by undemocratic, corporate vision of the Board of Regents and President Cross.

A vote of no confidence is a vote for a democratic future, a vote to lift the pall that has fallen over our state in the past five years.  It is at once a small, symbolic act and the beginning of a sea change: a hope for unity and vision against the regime of cynicism and cruelty.

 

 

 

No Confidence!