The vote by UWM faculty this week to express their lack of confidence in the leadership of both the UW System Chancellor, Ray Cross, and the Board of Regents prompts me to reflect on my identity as a UWM alumnus and academic staff person. Even as I write this post, I am tempted to use the word Panther as an expression of my allegiance to and partnership with others at the University, but I find myself stalled, wary of the pretense that would suggest. Despite my 50-year involvement with the institution, identifying with it is still challenging.
Maybe a letter to someone would help me resolve the issues I have with my alma mater and fairly consistent employer. I’ll give that approach a try in this open letter to UWM Chancellor Mark Mone.
Dear Chancellor Mone,
I write to you today with deep concern for our university and with trust that you will read of my interests and concerns with the care and respect that I have seen you exhibit time and again in your brief tenure. I appreciate your regular talks on WUWM and have listened to many of them. I like to hear you cheering us on as a campus community. You seem a seasoned and reasonable guy, poised, decent, tactful, and civil. Thank you for all of that.
My experiences at UWM started 50 years ago when I took my placement exams prior to my undergraduate years here. I have also earned a certificate in school psychology and two graduate degrees from UWM. I have been involved as an employee here as well for much of that time.
As a psychologist I have certainly relied on what I learned in course work at UWM. Still, I am surprised how much I use in my daily work life that was garnered from courses in linguistics, education, and comparative literature. In the School of Education my thinking was deeply affected by the works of Adler and Piaget. In the humanities, I learned to write and was transformed by reading Goethe, Aeschylus, and Flaubert. Raised poor on Milwaukee’s Southside, I was exposed to more at UWM than I could have imagined when I got off the #30 bus to see the campus for the first time.
My involvement as a student was not always positive. I was required to take remedial speech as an undergraduate because I sounded gay. I was told I could not declare a psychology major because being gay was a mental illness. I was denied a chair to sit on in a graduate class because my major was not acknowledged by the professor. However, these very challenging experiences were tempered by extraordinary teaching, supervision, and support services in other departments, programs, and venues here at UWM.
During my long involvement with UWM, I have witnessed the growing dependence by higher education on academic staff for much of undergraduate course instruction. As revenues have not kept pace with expenses and as universities have needed to compete for faculty, the lower per student cost of employing academic staff has been both reasonable and expected. Because of these circumstances, I have been fortunate to teach courses in school psychology and psychology for decades.
Again, however, my involvement has not been without challenges. Many university policies and procedures do not meet the realities of the lives of instructional staff who teach one or two courses a semester. We are not informed of important developments like faculty are, but rather glean our information from students, local press, and updates from the Provost. We are not afforded office space or keys. We are expected to apply policies about which we are uniformed, connect with offices closed when we are on campus, and resolve issues with little awareness of the mechanics of the university. For many of us D2L is a confusing, cumbersome, and useless distraction. I purchase my own office supplies, pay for copies of exams, and purchase my own texts.
As an instructor in an upper level course, I am often called upon to advise students about their graduate aspirations, their undergraduate challenges, and their personal fears. Last semester, I wrote 21 letters of recommendation for eight students, many to UWM graduate programs. I also meet with these same students to cheer them on when they are accepted into programs and to pick up the pieces when they are not. I have uncovered and followed up on sexual assaults, homelessness, and other serious challenges among my students. As academic staff, I have found only the Norris Health Center to be consistently available, accessible, and acceptable in their response to my calls for assistance.
The students in my classes are eclectic, lively, and often enthusiastic learners. They are also burdened with too many hours of employment, increasing debt, and degree completion timelines that are staggering. As our country continues to degrade education into a pathway to corporate service, using whatever slogan or acronym is popular at the time (now, of course, it is STEM), many of the really good thinkers in my classes are discouraged because they are ill-suited for corporate life.
Chancellor Mone, under your administration, I have been asked for my thoughts through surveys and listening sessions more than any time in my decades here. I do respond to the former, but the latter are better suited to faculty schedules than part-time academic staff. Still, you have facilitated involvement.
At the end of the day, however, it seems to me that our campus community is not coming together like it could. Our opinions our sought, but not necessarily our ideas. The big issues and challenges of our day are not really the spending cuts to the University. These fiscal issues are the product of a degradation of the status of higher education and learning. Following the trends in higher education is not the same as academic leadership, it is a collapse into the corporate welfare system and a diminishing democracy.
I know very few of my peers among academic staff. Those with whom I am familiar I have met through projects outside the University. Knowing faculty is no more likely, either. As an alumnus with three degrees from UWM, I receive periodic newsletters and magazines. Two years ago I also received a request by letter for a $10,000 donation. I get no communication from the departments from which I graduated, even though I received an alumni award from one of them.
As I reflect on my 50th anniversary with UWM, I am neither nostalgic nor optimistic. My hopes for UWM reside in its students, many of whom want to be part of something bigger than the sum of their individual relationships. They want a sense of permanence that the experiences of higher education can provide. They want to be part of decision making and are concerned for their wellbeing and that of their peers. I urge my students to fight for their education, for a life of the mind. I encourage them to fight for their university.
In the fall of 1966, I stood in the stands of a football field west of Maryland Avenue and joined my classmates in our fight song:
Fight, fight, fight for UWM,
Fight for her fame.
We’ll win this game.
I am not sure we will win this game, even though I am a chronically hopeful person. I am not sure we will win because I am not confident that our campus community shares a definition of a win.
Thanks for reading my message. It would be great to meet one of our Chancellors before I retire in the near future.
Gary Hollander, PhD
In the end, I am a Panther, albeit an ambivalent one.
UW-Milwaukee is a vitally important academic institution with an impressive alumni base, strong research profile, and deep community engagements. I look forward to working with our leadership to build on our past accomplishments, knowing that even greater things are ahead for this campus and community.
— Chancellor Mark Mone