A Day in the Life of a Public University Professor in Wisconsin

Carrying on in the state of Scott Walker.
By Kelly Wilz

As of January 2016, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled state legislature had cut funding by $1.05 billion for K–12 public schools, $795 million for the University of Wisconsin system, and $203 million for the Wisconsin technical college system.

In a January 16, 2016, opinion piece in the New York Times, Dan Kaufman summed up the concerns of many in the state:

Mr. Walker signed a bill that allowed corporations to donate directly to political parties. On the same day, he signed a law that replaced the state’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board. . . . Now a new bill . . . threatens to corrupt Wisconsin’s Civil Service. . . . Besides rewriting the hiring process for new employees and the work rules that govern some 30,000 current state workers, the bill highlights Wisconsin’s role as a laboratory for a national conservative strategy to destroy the labor movement. . . . Last year, Mr. Walker signed a “right-to-work” law that weakened private-sector unions. . . . By adding the Civil Service bill, Mr. Walker brings Wisconsin closer to the achievement of a long-sought goal of the libertarian right: universal “at-will employment.”

And, if that weren’t enough, according to Jennifer Schilling at Urban Milwaukee, “Newly released ACT scores show a steep decline in student test results. The drop in average test score from 22.2 to 20.0 coincides with an increase in the number of Wisconsin students taking the exam and comes after several years of Republican budget cuts that have impacted public education in the state.

These scores dropped Wisconsin from 2nd best to 9th worst in the nation (tied with Kentucky) among states where more than half the students took the exam.”

I fear that none of these numbers will matter. I have lost all hope that the dismantling of public education in Wisconsin will come to a halt any time soon.

I’ve never seen this state so divided. I’ve never witnessed such hatred between strangers or those who disagree. Vitriol is directed toward teachers, educators, or, as Governor Walker so calculatedly described us, “the haves.”

Going into the fall 2015 semester, we knew we’d lost. We’d fought, we’d petitioned, but the cuts went through. And we saw a transformation like never before.

It is my hope that eventually the citizens of Wisconsin will see that their elected officials have gone too far; that maybe, just maybe, parents who want to send their children to a UW institution will fight on our behalf; that alumni who so dearly love the Badgers come March Madness will also love the institution that gave them those athletes; that businesses that have suffered as a result of continued disinvestment in education will stand up and say, “No more.” But I’ve been waiting for a long time. And all I hear is silence.

Wisconsin, as Dan Kaufman notes, has served as a testing ground for a national strategy that will soon be coming to your state—to your neighborhood—if it hasn’t already.

Let me, in the most human way possible, describe an average day under Governor Walker as an employee of a crumbling public institution.

8 a.m. I drive forty minutes to work. I no longer listen to Wisconsin Public Radio because I can’t bear to hear any more bad news. I fight back tears. My campus is a toxic place to work. Gone are the days when my colleagues left their doors open, when you could catch laughter in the halls. My colleagues go to work, they teach, they serve the campus, and they go home.

9 a.m. I get to campus. I notice that a student has been dropped from my attendance roster. I sigh. This student had been coming to my office hours every day for weeks. She was deeply troubled and had found a soft place to land in my office, where I would often stay late after work. I tried my best to help her, advising her all the while to see one of the counselors on campus. I have to remind my students that I have no background in counseling and that, although I can offer a sympathetic ear, they would be much better off in the hands of a trained professional. But the thought of seeing a counselor was too much for her.

Three days earlier I had spent about four hours after class talking her down from a panic attack. That’s when I realized I couldn’t help her anymore. The emotional labor was too much. On the advice of my therapist, I decided I had to take my bags to my last class of the day and leave directly after work to avoid repeating episodes like this for the rest of the semester. When I saw she’d dropped my class, I felt like I’d abandoned her. But I had to preserve my sanity and my ability to do my job effectively, so she fell through the cracks. I found out later she’d dropped all of her classes and was no longer registered as a student. To this day, I don’t know if she’ll ever come back. Part of me believes it’s my fault for not helping her.

10 a.m. I teach my first class. I notice a few students on their phones, and, as I always do, I ask them to put their phones down. One of those holding a phone, an international student whose grasp of the English language is limited, does not respond. I ask him again to put down his phone, since he either didn’t understand me the first time or was ignoring me. Finally, a classmate nudges him and he puts his phone away.

At the end of the hour, my student, in tears, apologizes to me. He claims that he was using his phone to translate my lectures and that he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. He keeps apologizing and I feel awful. I’ve just shamed a student in front of my entire class when he was using his phone to try to understand what I was saying. After class, my sadness turns to anger. How is this student in my class? If his English is indeed so poor that he needs a translator to understand me, how much is he getting out of my course? And why have we set this student up for failure?

I then realize that the reason he and many others like him are able to take credit-bearing courses is simply that the university needs the money. Because the Wisconsin legislature decided not only to cut funding for the UW system but also to freeze tuition for four years in a row (from 2013 to 2017), institutions have been actively recruiting any and all students who will pay the much higher out-of-state tuition to make up for the deficit—often at the expense of the success and college experience of these students. I can’t blame my campus or any other university for this situation. The state funds roughly 17 percent of the costs of the university system, so we’ve become more dependent on those tuition dollars just to keep the lights on.

11 a.m. I hold office hours. A student comes to ask for career advice. He wants to become a psychologist but can’t afford to be a full-time student next semester. His parents no longer live in the state, so he’s living with his girlfriend. He says that, to save money, he might go to a technical college and become an electrician instead of studying psychology. I ask him if that’s what he wants to do and whether he has any interest in becoming an electrician. He says that he doesn’t but that he doubts whether he can afford to go to school for years to get the education he would need to do what he dreams of doing. My heart sinks a little. He’s one of the smartest students I’ve had in my more than fourteen years of teaching. I know that if his parents could provide the kind of support that I had when I was in college, he wouldn’t have to make this type of decision.

I ask him why he wants to be a psychologist. It turns out he’s suffered from depression—untreated because his family didn’t have health-care coverage—and wanted to help others who suffered as he had. I ask him if he’s thought about seeing a counselor on campus. He says that work and classes prevented him from doing so during the times counseling is offered: Tuesdays to Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. I get angry. Again. Not at him but at the reality that an institution that should be generously funding mental health counseling cannot afford to have a counselor on campus full time. If you have a mental health emergency on a weekend, a Monday or Friday, or after 4 p.m., you’re out of luck.

12 p.m. I read in an e-mail that one of my beloved coworkers has found a new job and within two weeks will no longer be working on our campus. This shouldn’t surprise me. These types of e-mail messages have been pouring in for more than a year. But this one really strikes a chord. “John” is in charge of what we call the Success Center. He not only runs the tutoring program—a program that students described in a survey as the most valuable asset on our campus—but also does advising and makes accommodation plans for students who need assistance. He offers a quiet place for students to make up exams—not technically a medical accommodation, but a benefit that many of our students need and use. John has also been involved in numerous efforts to retain students, and he has been instrumental in getting students the help they need. I have often had him come to my classes during the first week of the semester to talk about possible accommodations—audio books, extended testing time, note-takers. He encourages students who need help to ask for it, citing his own struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Students love John and John loved his job.

I e-mail him, telling him that I don’t know what I will do when he leaves. He responds, “Thanks for the kind words, with the transition, my position was just overlooked. You are probably the hardest faculty member to discuss my leaving with, as we have done so much together. I would have loved to stay, but unfortunately, that isn’t our reality.” I would have loved to stay. A sentiment echoed by so many amazing faculty and staff members with whom I’ve worked over the years. His was not a decision made because of an amazing job opportunity somewhere else. No. John’s position was cut, and he saw the writing on the wall. For the second time today I fight back tears. I have more classes to teach.

1 p.m. Off to teach. My happy place, where I don’t have to think about Wisconsin politics. Where I see my students grow and learn and do amazing things every day. I’ve written extensively about how many times my students have saved me, but this semester has been exceptional.

Over the weekend my stepfather passed away. He was everything to me, and though I knew he was in hospice, I didn’t know that he had only weeks and not months or years left. I didn’t take family medical leave. In order to do that, you have to request time off in advance, and I didn’t know when I would need the time, nor could I afford to take a few days or a week of unpaid leave to be with my family.

It is also the week of my birthday. It will be a bittersweet birthday, now forever associated with my stepfather’s death, but, as I walk into class, I see a sea of smiling faces looking at me with anticipation. Then I see the cake. My class has baked me a birthday cake. The day after my stepfather died, I’m greeted by the love of students who worked behind the scenes to get a card signed by the entire class and make me a cake. In that moment, I bask in the love of my students; I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so appreciated over the course of my entire teaching career.

4 p.m. Classes are over and I’m ready to head home. It’s been a productive day, but like all the others, a hard one. I get an urgent message from a student who thinks that a classmate is suicidal. I go down the hall to a colleague’s office to get the number for the suicide hotline and let her know what’s happening. The student finally reaches his friend’s mother, who goes to her room and says that she’s fine. My student’s classmate apologizes for scaring him and makes it clear that she has no intention to hurt herself. We speak with her mother, who says that she will call the police and the suicide hotline just to be on the safe side.

6 p.m. Still in the office, I check my e-mail. I’ve received another hateful message from someone who came across my posts on Academe Blog and thinks that I should go to hell. As more people read my blog posts, I’ve been getting more of these messages, but it’s still troubling to think that someone would take the time to track you down at work to let you know how horrible you are simply for fighting on behalf of teachers and having the gall to voice an opinion.

6:15 p.m. A former student stops by to say hello. We end up talking about her wedding and her future. She informs me that her husband has transferred to my institution, a two-year campus, from a four-year UW campus. I know that he had almost finished his bachelor’s degree, so I ask her why he transferred. Evidently, at the end of the spring semester last year, his adviser signed him up for a number of classes because she wasn’t sure which classes would still be available in the following fall semester. Most of these classes had nothing to do with his program, but they would give him full-time status, which he needed to qualify for financial aid. Over the summer break he followed up with his adviser and tried to enroll in courses that would be beneficial to him. He checked his account online only to find out that classes for which he’d been registered had been canceled as a result of low enrollment or because no faculty member was available to teach them.

When the first week of school came, he realized that he was registered only for two classes—both of which he’d already taken. After calling the university, he learned that his adviser had left for another school; meanwhile, his departmental mentors had also left the university. At the last minute, he was able to register for two courses on my campus, but he’s now $10,000 in debt and no closer to receiving a terminal degree than he was a year ago. And he’s questioning whether he even wants to continue his college education.

7:15 p.m. I drive home. The roads are bad, so I drive slowly. I let the events of the day sink in and try to push them away.

Maybe I care too much. Maybe I need to let go of that which I can’t control.

I come home. I make it up the stairs to the couch and collapse into my partner’s arms. I start crying, and he holds me.

We’ve done this before. He knows he can’t say anything to comfort me. He knows work is hard right now. Hard. Such an inadequate word for the overwhelming hopelessness that has seeped into my soul, that has emptied my cup time and time again.

I cry for my stepfather. I cry for my students. I cry for John. I cry because it’s my birthday tomorrow and I don’t want to think about what a trying year this has been for me and those I love.

10 p.m. I manage to slip out of my work clothes and into bed. This day is over, but tomorrow I will do it all again.

I will still be hated by strangers. I will still be a “leech on the system.” I will still wonder who will be left by the end of the semester—how many “Johns” will I grieve for? But today is over. And if I have to face tomorrow, I will need some sleep. For tomorrow, I know, will bring with it new challenges, sadness, and loss.    

Kelly Wilz is an associate professor in the Department of Communication/Theatre Arts and the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Marshfield/Wood County. Her research and teaching explore the intersections of education, media literacy, gender, politics, democracy, and popular culture.