Skeleton Crew

Or, Adventures in Austerity Math


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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

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