Apathy as a default option

One of the best and most telling lines I think I ever read
came from Terry Pluto’s book on the Cleveland Indians. After GM Frank Lane made
about a dozen trades and stripped the team of anything worthy of a big-league
roster, the club began the long march into 30 years of horrible baseball.
Somewhere during that first scorched-earth season, a local fan told a local
scribe: “I don’t know these guys well enough to be sore at them.” Pluto
commented that this was the worst thing ever: apathy.

As a member of our state-run university system, I find
myself in that same boat of sin. And, trust me, it doesn’t feel good.

The state has killed off much of the funding it promised for
the UW System in the upcoming budget. Worse yet, it took away the freedom it
promised for the system to govern itself a bit more. The freedom was promised a
couple years back when THAT budget gutted the system of more than $300 million
and enacted policies so scary that the Democratic senators fled the state.

in other words, they gave us a pile of shit to eat, but promised we’d get a
breath mint two years later. At that point, they decided to take away that mint
because we probably couldn’t handle the responsibility of fresh breath, now
that we’re used to smelling like shit.

The state took another swipe at my beloved profession by
trying to bounce the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from it’s
home in Vilas Hall.

I spent six years of my life in Vilas and can attest that
the place smells like a cross between old newspapers and wet dog. It’s an ugly,
cramped building and the rumor was that they designed it specifically to
prevent radicals from taking it over. Thus, you had columns jutting out here
and there instead of straight hallways, an insane number of entry points and a
generally confusing layout. Not sure if that was true, but the ugly remained.

In any case, it’s not like the WCIJ was getting palatial
digs. It was a good arrangement between a field in need of improved journalism
and an organization committed to filling that need. Now, it’s in jeopardy for
reasons past my understanding. The Republicans who felt this was so important
as to include it in the state budget have bravely closed ranks and will not say
in public whose brilliant idea this ban was. Classy and strong: Your Wisconsin
GOP, everybody!

Each day, I read about the latest “Deliverance” moment from
our statehouse and I’m finding myself more and more strangely detached and less
and less outraged. I’m not even sad. I’m like Kurt in “Boogie Nights” when he’s
mixing the Johnny Dough porno and Jack Horner asks how good the new movie is:
“It is what it is.”

I have liberal friends who try to tell me that things will
be better if we can get rid of Scott Walker, but that’s not true. First, we
tried that and it ended up being like a Civil Rights vote gone wrong: People said the
right things in public and then went into the booth and dropped the “n” word on
the ballot. Second and more importantly,
this isn’t just Walker or the Republicans. Keep in mind it was Jim Doyle’s
administration that rescinded a 2 percent pay increase for faculty and later
furloughed all state employees to the tune of a 3 percent pay cut. It’s not one
party or the other.

It’s both. It’s everyone.

At some unperceivable point in the past, people of this
state started caring less about education and more about something else. It
might be lower taxes, it might be private enterprise, who knows? In any case,
the state as a whole started allowing tuition to carry a higher burden of the
educational cost and that started hurting student a bit more each year. Like a
frog placed in water that was heated a few degrees at a time, no one really
noticed we were in trouble until it was too late and kids were boiling in loan

(When I went to school, you could pay for college if you
worked your ass off in the summer.Now, you can’t do it if you worked overtime
all year.

It happened when Republicans were in charge.

It happened when Democrats were in charge.

It just burned us all to the ground.

Cuts of the fat became cuts of the meat became cuts of the
bone. Less money plus increasing responsibilities equaled more and more and
more cuts. It never stopped.

The response from the general public has been appalling:
everything from people saying “be grateful you still HAVE a job” to one person
who encouraged students to punch professors in the face.

I remember reading a comment by a chancellor of a UW school
who was asked about that morale on his campus. He said he mentally responded, “What
morale?” He noted his faculty is discouraged and saddened about being the
default option when it comes time for the state to hand out an ass-whipping.
However, he also noted many of them are numb.

Numb is what happens when you are continually hit.
Eventually, the body defends itself by not allowing you to feel the pain
anymore. The body give up on sending out pain signals, the things that are
supposed to alert you to get away from the injurious force. The body finally
figures out that there is no way out, so it stops alerting you and it just
protects you from feeling anything.

And that is where we are now as a higher-ed system.

Uncomfortably numb.

3 thoughts on “Apathy as a default option

  1. “be grateful you still HAVE a job”
    That might not be the only problem, but it certainly IS a problem — the perception that an academic position is just another job.
    And i don’t know how to get back to the time when higher education was considered enough of a social good to justify full funding. It seems like you can’t reason, or appeal to their presumed concern for their kids…

  2. I interviewed almost two months ago at a UW system institution and fell in love. The campus, the people, the students I met – over the day-long interview, for the first time as a possible employee on a campus, I found people who understood what I was saying without my having to explain, for instance, the new trends in sustainability and resilience pedagogy that are being examined and employed in Canadian and European schools. I still haven’t heard anything. I keep wondering if it’s because of the budget troubles. I would be okay if I didn’t get it, because – hey – you pretty much have to be, right? But it’s such a fucking waste if the budget is at the root of the delay – this campus is doing amazing things, but they don’t do a good job of “shameless self-promotion” and they’re missing out, I’ll wager, on students who might opt to attend their campus rather than the closest two, because the students just. don’t. know. how much good work is being done.
    So, I wait. And wait. And wait.

  3. The funny thing is even the more right-wing parents of Wisconsin still want to send their kids to UW System schools. (If for no other reason than to keep them out of states where the gays are getting married.)
    UW faculty are going to have to stand up one day as a body and demand they be treated like the skilled workers they are. They have a lot of leverage, but the prevailing attitude of meekness and waiting for the next ‘progressive hero’ to come and liberate them has got to go. I hope your “uncomfortably numb” verdict is a wake-up call.

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