University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee AAUP Chapter

By Kelly Hand

Until about a year ago, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee had not had an active AAUP chapter in decades. The chapter formed and grew quickly in response to actions by Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature that jeopardized the future of higher education throughout the University of Wisconsin system. After Governor Walker signed Act 55, the 2015–17 biennial budget, which includes provisions removing tenure and shared governance protections from state law, the UW system promised to retain tenure protections formerly enshrined in statute. However, in its new systemwide policy, adopted formally on March 10, the UW Board of Regents included alarming provisions on post-tenure review, layoffs of tenured faculty, and program discontinuation. UW–Milwaukee AAUP leaders took an active role in challenging problematic provisions in systemwide policy and in advocating on their own campus as participants in the Chancellor’s Campus Organization and Effectiveness Team.

We asked chapter president Rachel Buff and vice president Nicholas Fleisher to answer some questions about this dynamic chapter, and they provided responses in consultation with other chapter leaders.

When and how did momentum begin to build on your campus for establishing an active AAUP chapter?
In many ways the momentum began with the governor’s biennial budget proposal in winter 2015. It gained further traction after the tenure and shared governance changes were unexpectedly introduced by the Wisconsin state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in late May and Act 55 passed the legislature and was signed by the governor in early July. Jasmine Alinder and others organized the first two meetings in summer 2015.

What methods of outreach did you use to recruit almost one hundred members in just a few months?
Well-attended meetings in July led to the formation of our chapter; subsequently we have relied on events and word of mouth to build membership. We have a website and use social media. We also attract members by holding events.

Your website defines your membership as “academic staff, faculty, and graduate students advocating for a strong University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.” How did you decide on this inclusive approach?
There was little question that on this campus, with its high proportion of non-tenure-track faculty and other academic staff, we had to organize across rank and status. The AAUP’s One Faculty campaign spoke to us, and unity has been our strength. We are still working to recruit members to realize the goal of broad-based representation, since our membership is currently weighted toward tenured and tenure-track faculty in the College of Letters and Science.

How do you envision the role of your chapter in larger battles over governance and tenure in Wisconsin?
With other chapters in the state—notably those at the Madison and Whitewater campuses—we have worked to advocate for tenure and shared governance, currently under assault by the state legislature. We hope to form a regional caucus so that individuals at other campuses can join us; a new chapter representing faculty at the UW Colleges has recently been formed. Along with allies, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), local activists, and politicians, we are part of an emergent block fighting back against the assault on worker rights and public institutions in our state and nationally.

There was a huge backlash when Scott Walker wanted to change UW system language about “the Wisconsin Idea”—“the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.” To what extent has the Wisconsin Idea influenced your chapter’s organizing and shaped its messages?
It has been central in two ways: first of all, as the “urban access campus” of the UW system, UW–Milwaukee is a living realization of the Wisconsin Idea. Much of our chapter’s advocacy, particularly as the campus contends with the austerity engendered by the so-called structural deficit, has engaged with the notion that our campus is one of the ways in which the “boundaries of the university end at the boundaries of the state.”

Second, the violation of the Wisconsin Idea has motivated much of the positive publicity that the AAUP and AFT have received in trying to defend it. The Wisconsin Idea is a unique platform for us, and its enduring popularity counters much of the negative publicity generated by Walker and often accepted as an unfortunate reality by UW administrators.

Milwaukee has a strong history as a union town, and your chapter has demonstrated solidarity with local nonacademic groups and labor activists. How has this broader commitment to justice played a role in your organizing work?
We think of the attack on public higher education as part of a broader regime of neoliberal austerity. In Milwaukee this austerity has driven an attempted “takeover” of the public schools, which threatens to expand the privatization already in process: Milwaukee has been a site for experimentation with “voucher schools” since 1990. We have worked to create common purpose and solidarity with the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association as well as with student groups on campus, such as Students for a Democratic Society and Youth Empowered in the Struggle!, which is primarily concerned with the issues faced by undocumented students. It is clear that the current assault on tenure is part of the rollback on contracts for laborers that began in 2011.

What work is ahead for your chapter with respect to UW system and UW–Milwaukee policies currently under consideration that affect your members? How is your chapter working to shape or respond to those policies?
Along with our colleagues from around the state, we were involved in responding to the draft policies on faculty layoff and post-tenure review produced by the Regents’ Tenure Policy Task Force. This meant writing and discussing collaboratively, circulating drafts to membership and to our campus leadership (the faculty senate and the University Committee), and participating in a rally in Madison before the regents’ meeting.

We advocated for and received representation on the Chancellor’s Campus Organization and Effectiveness Team. We have organized our membership to show up for public meetings. At one meeting, members marched in and presented a “manifesto of principles” to guide budget cutting.

Right now we are working to respond to the budget cuts as they take place. This work involves public advocacy though press releases, events, and social media as well as less-public work with individuals affected by nonrenewal or reduction of their contracts.

We have constituted task forces on academic staff issues, since much of the savings will come out of more “flexible labor.” In addition, we have formed an Advocacy Task Force to support members facing nonrenewal or other actions.

In December, chapter vice president Nick Fleisher was live-tweeting during a UW system Tenure Policy Task Force meeting with a point-by-point commentary on the board of regents’ draft policies regarding faculty layoff and post-tenure review. How has your chapter utilized social media and what can other chapters learn from your experiences?
We live-tweet many system and campus meetings; it’s one of the ways we constitute community. We have a blog, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. Most recently, several chapter members engaged the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s education reporter on a particularly problematic piece she wrote about the Tenure Policy Task Force’s work.

Many of our members stay connected through Facebook and Twitter; we use social media to promote events and link our struggles to companion chapters and broader struggles around the state. Our blog has featured pieces by UW–Milwaukee AAUP members and allies and has drawn on the skills of the membership.

What can the national AAUP bring to the table in Wisconsin and in other states where public education and faculty are at risk?
We are appreciative of the legal and procedural support provided by AAUP staff; the national AAUP also brings gravitas to our struggle. It’s important for the national office to work to present alternative visions to the ongoing attack on public higher education.

Does your chapter have a story to share? Write to communications@ aaup.org to be considered for a chapter profile in Academe.

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