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.