Yes, all around the globe, at least north of the equator, different cultures are celebrating the solstice in their own ways. This is the season of candles, greenery, red wrapping paper, guilt, shopping for presents, and reminders to drive carefully. Tuesday, December 21, is the solstice itself: on that day, the Sun shines directly down the passageway into the Stone Age Irish structure Newgrange, and on that day, Zuni, Hopi and Pueblo Native Americans will observe the Soyal Ceremony to bring the Sun back, and sure enough, on that day, the Japanese Sun Goddess Ameratsu will emerge from her cave. Calendars being what they are, holidays are scattered about Winter Break, but whatever holidays you celebrate, have a Merrie Holiday Season, and drive carefully.
Meanwhile, in this last Biweekly of this calendar year, we reflect on one of the disconcerting stories of our times.
We often assume that come what may, politicians will leave first class operations alone when they go on the rampage. This year, after attacking unions and cutting education, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched a presidential campaign while targeting one of Wisconsin's greatest assets, the University of Wisconsin. The moral is that no one is immune - something to remember the next time someone says, "They won't really do that to us..."
The University of Wisconsin-Madison (a.k.a. UW) was founded in 1848, the year Wisconsin became a state, and has nearly 30,000 undergraduate and over 10,000 graduate students, with about 22,000 faculty and staff. A founding member of the Association of American Universities (which USF aspires to join), it is currently ranked # 24 in Shanghai's Academic Ranking of World Universities (USF is currently ranked 201-300). It would seem to be one of Wisconsin's crown jewels.
It was dedicated to the Wisconsin Idea that "the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state," which started with a lot of agricultural research and development and has since expanded into science and technology. This may have been what (then former) President Teddy Roosevelt meant when he said, "In no other state in the union has any university done the same work for the community that has been done in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin."
But other applications of the Wisconsin Idea included social research and policy advice. The university played a role in the Progressive Movement, partly through Wisconsin Governor "Fighting Bob" La Follette. But Wisconsin is also the state of Joseph McCarthy - who had a constituency, after all - and the university has acquired enemies through the years.
Scott Walker was elected Governor of Wisconsin in 2010; since then, he survived a recall election, was re-elected governor, and this January started setting up his presidential campaign (which he suspended in September).
During his first term in office, Walker refused $ 10 billion in federal transportation money and later pushed for legislation undermining collective bargaining rights for state and public employees. (This was the same time as our Governor Scott's first legislative session, when he and the legislative leadership tried to undermine our collective bargaining rights, as well as abolish tenure for the colleges.)
In February - one month after he set up his presidential funding - Walker proposed cutting half of UW's mission statement, removing "knowledge", "truth", "public service" and other inconvenient bits from the original legislation (under fire, he backtracked, claiming that the proposed changes were some kind of typo). He proposed a 2.5 % cut in UW's funding (later reduced to a 2 % cut). And he proposed eliminating Wisconsin's law protecting academic tenure and shared faculty governance and also giving the university greater latitude in layoffs, which subsequently passed.
There was some speculation about how this reflected a growing utilitarian view of higher education, but the reality is that education as the door of opportunity - which translates to education for jobs and careers - is as old as the first Egyptian and Mesopotamian schools for scribes. And in fact, America has a long history of such utilitarianism, often quite friendly with academia. But the rhetoric from Scott Walker and some of his colleagues is not friendly, e.g. his statement that "Maybe itís time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work..." That together with the attack on tenure and the timing with the presidential campaign suggests that Walker was using UW as a punching bag.
The decisions were finalized during summer. Since then, teaching assistants have protested changes in their working conditions, an alumni couple has offered to cover one year of the 2 % cut provided that other donors make up another year (which other donors apparently will), and faculty are working to recover some of their tenure rights. In her State of the University address, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank (who started by noting that for the 22nd time, a UW alumnus has won a Nobel prize) warned that UW faces an $ 86 million deficit, that UW will try to repair tenure within the university, and that despite the legislative changes, shared faculty governance will continue as before. "Our biggest problem in this coming year is not any of these individual issues by themselves, which we are handling. More damaging is the accumulation of these negative events ..." But thanks to efforts of the university community, "UW will remain a world-class institution."
And it would help if the governor stopped using UW as a punching bag.