"Why shouldn't things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together."
--George Santayana

Such Delicate Things

For June 2016, the literary journal Halfway Down the Stairs chose the theme “Suspicion”–an appropriate subject for American political culture in this wild election year. I’m happy to say my “Such Delicate Things” was one of the stories they picked for the volume. Alison Stedman is the senior fiction editor. I include the introduction here and a link to the magazine at the bottom of the post.

I woke at two in the morning with a strange sense that someone somewhere in the apartment building had screamed. I thought I’d been dreaming, but if I had, I forgot the dream the moment I awoke. Maybe the scream roused me out of a dream. Or the dream, if it existed, roused me out of a scream. I couldn’t get back to sleep because I kept listening. My mind was mired in questions. Had the scream come from down the hallway? The basement? Did it come from the street below, or from some grayness between my mind and reality, a non-place like a shopping mall or an airport terminal? It could have been any of those; the scream was distant yet near, muffled yet distinct, minute yet immense.

“Did you hear that?” I asked my fiancé Mavis.

When there was no answer, I reached out to touch her, but grasped only space. I remembered she’d gone home early. She hadn’t used red pepper flakes in the pasta dish, and that had meant we wouldn’t sleep together.

I felt disoriented—the scream, Mavis’s absence, night. I got out of bed and found myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I still existed, judging from what I saw in the reflection: a tall, reedy twenty-something male, olive complexion, thanks to a Greek mother and Slovenian father, jet-black disheveled hair appropriate in length and style to the demanding graduate-student fashion dictates of the moment. “Enough,” I whispered to the darkness, “you’re real.”

I shuffled to the living room window, pulled the curtain aside. A perfectly normal January scene in Madison, Wisconsin. It had snowed that afternoon, four or five inches, but the snowplows had already cleaned up. The new mayor, mealy-mouthed and overweight, knew that his ticket to re-election was keeping the streets plowed. The streetlamps bathed everything in a bizarre metallic light that made me think of chewing aluminum foil. The only movement I saw was a black and white squad car pulling into the university police station across the street. Sometimes at this time of night I would see students straggling back to their dorms or apartments after a night of hellacious boozing. But it was winter break, and Madison became very quiet when students did their binging and retching back home for the holidays.

I went into the kitchen, let the tap run, and poured a glass of cool water. I took a sip and took the glass back to my bedroom, where I put it on my nightstand. Mavis was often annoyed with me for leaving half-full glasses of water scattered around the apartment. I couldn’t help myself: I was a serial water pourer and glass filler. It was even worse on nights I couldn’t sleep. Then I might get up three or four times, pour a glass, take a few sips in the living room or bedroom, and leave the glass there. If I did that often enough I had to get up several times to go the bathroom. That kept Mavis up, and even if we’d had red pepper flakes in the stew or spaghetti, she’d get in a huff, demonstratively rotate herself several times under the sheets, and tell me, after one final thrash, to go sleep on the couch, which I did.

From the bedroom, I looked outside again. Nothing had changed. The plowed streets and shoveled sidewalks, the lit-up police station, an early-morning inertness as indistinct as the moment between waking and sleep. Madison was still except for the yellow caution light at the intersection, which flashed on and off, on and off, as if trying to start a conversation. No one responded. Or maybe only the screamer had.

To read more, go here.



My thanks to editor Alisa Golden for publishing my flash fiction piece, “Logical,” in Issue 4.2 of *82 Review. Here is the story along with a link to the magazine at the bottom of the page.

For my tenth birthday my father took me to Eddie Jaeger’s Body Shop, to view wrecked cars. A strange thing to see, all that tortured metal and exploded glass. Eddie and I are army buddies, my father said, we can walk around as long as we want.

It was a July evening, 1960. Steely corpses, a Buick here and a Ford there, were scattered around us. They were mostly detritus from the newly opened Interstate nearby. Echoes from a day’s work hung in the air—sanding, drilling, cursing, laughing, paint that fender, straighten that frame, hand me that wrench.

But there must have been other echoes, jagged and anxious like my father. He may have heard the sound of M-1s firing, or the roar of tanks. He might have remembered snowflakes that fell like incendiary bombs in the Battle of the Bulge, as bodies were laid out by the side of a road and sorted, bagged, and carted away by clattering khaki green trucks with white army stars on the doors. My father once told me he had driven one of those trucks, and maybe he still heard their rumble at Jaeger’s.

For my part, I saw only twisted metal shapes that resembled sci-fi monsters. I heard no distant echoes, and barely sensed that my father’s world was sharper, harder, louder. Weeks later, his crippled Olds 88 appeared at Jaeger’s. When I was much older and had learned to connect dots, I guessed he had reopened the door to a history that had been hovering there and pounding, pounding, even as we strolled through a field of auto-corpses. He had followed the logic of a century, and joined the echoes.

To go to *82 Review, click here.


To Wisconsin Voters: “You Are Losing Your University”

This recent op-ed piece, “You Are Losing Your University,” from William L. Holahan, emeritus professor and former chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Charles O. Kroncke, retired dean of the College of Business at UWM, appeared in Urban Milwaukee (May 18, 2016).

Last week, the UW-Milwaukee faculty unanimously passed a vote of “no confidence” in the UW system and its Board of Regents. They hope this extreme measure will call public attention to the negative consequences the current state budget will likely have on the university’s ability to continue conducting high level research. Their vote comes just as the Carnegie Foundation rated the quality of UWM research as “R1,” its highest designation, earned by just two percent of American universities and colleges. Much to the faculty’s chagrin, the university’s current budget is being slashed so deeply that much of what they accomplished in the last half century is now in danger of being undone. Now, after receiving such a high national ranking for its research function, is the time to expand, not cut, the scope and scale of these activities.

Contrary to the view of Gov. Scott Walker and many legislators and regents, major research universities operate quite differently from the way business firms do. In a conventional firm, talent is arrayed from top down, whereas talent resides at all levels in research universities, from the recently hired young scholar to the seasoned professor. To be considered for a position as an assistant professor at a top-tier research university requires graduation from a top doctoral program with high grades and evidence of future research productivity. Once hired, the assistant professor usually has six years of probation in which to produce a significant peer-reviewed research record and evidence of strong teaching performance. Only then is an application for tenure made. The tenure review process will take several months and involve evaluation by scholars from around the world as well as from the home university. The granting of tenure provides the right to work hard after half a life of working hard. In an effort to create new knowledge, professors routinely reach far beyond the boundaries of their campus, state, and country; this is referred to as the “peer-review” research process. Professors who can function at this level of professionalism produce great benefits for the state, and currently we are at risk of losing far too many of them.

There are many educational benefits for students at R1 universities, many of which are not readily apparent. The professors who produce the R1 level research also maintain the curriculum in line with professional standards. They design the syllabus, choose the textbooks, and hire the professors in accordance with such standards. Students can have R1 scholars teaching their classes and mentoring them and directing their research projects. They can earn a letter of recommendation from professors who are well recognized in their profession and are able to provide trusted assessments in support of the student’s efforts to study at a top graduate school, law school, medical school, or to work at a major agency or think tank.

Cuts in the UWM budget bring lost opportunity; among the losers will be those advanced business and cultural enterprises whose prosperity relies in part on bringing to Wisconsin people that are on the leading edge in their fields of expertise. These cuts will become a cause for exodus, not attraction. Of course, the biggest losers will be those many excellent students for whom UWM is the only university within their financial grasp. Numbered among UWM graduates are architects, artists, business executives, educators, engineers, entertainers, healthcare professionals, religious leaders, and scientists. Many of these successful individuals were the first in their family to attend college; most of them needing loans and part-time employment while enrolled. UWM is a great institution for upward economic and social mobility, and its graduates enhance the cultural and economic growth of the region.

UWM is a high-return asset for the region and the state. It has been built by faculty and staff over many decades and funded by our taxpayers, tuition-payers and donors. The Carnegie Foundation designation is a signal that now is the appropriate time to invest, not cut, UWM’s budget so that the level of excellence achieved can be maintained.




My thanks to the editors of Stockholm Review of Literature, Ted Greijer, Sofia Capel and Sarvat Hasin, who just published my short story, “Rake,” in Issue 14 (15 May 2016). I include here the introduction to the piece along with a link to the magazine.

The man who unfurled his legs from an old green pickup with Michigan license plates was tall and he walked with a pronounced limp. He was in his seventies, and his once black hair, now tied into a ponytail, had turned as white as a snowdrift. It looked to Nils Dagerman, seated on a wicker chair in his screened porch, that his friend of some sixty years had let his beard grow out more. The man ducked under a ragged arbor and walked up the crumbling concrete path to the house.

“I’d say it looked like Santa Claus himself was coming to see me if you weren’t so damned skinny, Eddie,” said Nils. His voice abraded the evening air.

Eddie Simczak opened the screen door, which cried on its hinges. “Squeak’s gotten worse,” he said as he sat on a scuffed cedar swing hanging from the porch ceiling. He rocked back and forth. “They got oil for things like that.”

“You had something on, today, didn’t you?” asked Nils, after a few minutes of silence. The two friends often did this—sat for a quarter hour, maybe longer, saying nothing, watching people go by on the sidewalk or drive on Church Street, which was cobblestoned and narrow and lined with ancient Dutch elms that had somehow escaped the disease that led other cities to chop them down. The two men had been friends as long as the trees had been there. They weren’t exactly like an old married couple—completing each other’s sentences or speaking in meaning-laden silences—but almost.

“Yep,” said Eddie.

“And?” said Nils, who pulled a pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his faded blue corduroy shirt. He lit up with a chromed lighter bearing the words Zippo, the name in flame in a black ellipse. He extended the pack to Eddie.

“You know I quit years ago,” said Eddie, irritated.

“Just testing you.”

“You test me every time I see you.”

“Got to keep you on your toes.”

“Meantime, you kill yourself with…what? You backed off of two packs a day yet, like you said you would?”

Nils coughed, and Eddie couldn’t tell if it was genuine or if Nils wanted to make him even more irritated than he already was. If the latter, then he was doing a damned good job of it.

“I’ve cut down,” said Nils, drawing deeply on his Marlboro and exhaling a languid rivulet of smoke.

“So what did you have going today?” asked Nils, watching smoke rise. There were ancient water stains in the ceiling, stains Nils had repainted many times, only to have them return after a year or two. He’d given up on them now, and the ceiling was a paisley of brown and rust-colored teardrops.

“A funeral. Norbert Husting, you remember him.”

Nils shook his head No. It annoyed him Eddie always assumed that he, Nils, knew all his coworkers. They’d worked in different jobs their entire adult lives, Eddie on the line at Allied Can, Nils as a tool and die man at Warnke Metals. Yet Eddie spoke about his acquaintances as if Nils had worked on the same line and done the same job day after day, month after month, year after endless year.

“Oh,” said Eddie looking surprised. “He worked with me for, I don’t know, must have been thirty years. He was out fishing on Round Lake with his grandson and just kinda’ fell asleep in the boat, according to how they tell it. His grandson tried to wake him, said ‘hey, grandpa, get up.’ But he didn’t wake up.”

“A nice way to go,” said Nils thoughtfully. “With his grandson and all. Peaceful.”

“Upsetting for the boy, though, I hear.”

“Sure, I can see that.”

“Nice funeral it was. All his kids—he had three boys, three girls—and they’ve all got families, so there were lots of grandkids, from the oldest, the twelve-year-old in the boat, down to several toddlers. I looked around and thought how it was like Norby had sent all these messengers out into the world, and now they’ve created their own messengers, who go out into the world. An endless chain of messengers and messages.”

Nils stubbed out his Marlboro. “You’re poetic tonight, Eddie. How ‘bout a beer? A drink or two gets words flowing right. I bought a six-pack today. We could polish it off in no time.”

“No thanks, I was just going to stay for a few minutes anyway.”

“You got plans for the evening, Eddie? Hot date?”

“You know better than that,” snapped Eddie.

“Whoa, pal,” said Nils, raising his hands. “You got a short fuse tonight.”

Eddie bit his lower lip and took a long breath. “Seeing the man’s family and all got me to thinking about Charlene and Dahlia. And even Genevieve, though kids with her would’ve been like rolling Satan’s dice. But with the other two, well, maybe.”

“Everyone gets divorced these days. It’s the new national pastime. Replaced baseball, I hear.”

“But three times, Nils? Three strikeouts?”

Nils shrugged. “At least you played the game, buddy. Hell, I sat on the bench my whole life, and I guess I wanted it that way anyway. If you don’t play, you don’t risk losing.”

They sat in silence for a few more minutes, Nils looking out at Church Street from his wicker chair, Eddie rocking back and forth, back and forth, in the swing. “I had something I wanted to show you,” said Eddie after a while. “Just wanted to come around and show you something.”

“Sure, Eddie, show away.” Nils coughed again, but this time his coughs rose into a crescendo of jagged, phlegmy explosions that made his whole body writhe. After the onslaught, he took several wrenching gasps of air, pulled a stained blue handkerchief from the pocket of his khakis, and blew his nose in a series of sharp bursts that made his fine gray hair bounce on his long head. He then pulled the Marlboros from his pocket, used his trembling left hand to shake a cigarette free of the pack, and lit up again. “Gotta cut down sooner or later,” he said. “When the health club membership kicks in.”

Eddie looked at his friend and shook his head in disgust. “I’ve been thinking about what roads you and I might have taken.”

“Sounds like you been doin’ a lot of thinking.”

“And how neither one of us is going to send any messengers into the world.”

Nils dragged on his cigarette. The silence was glutinous. He looked at Eddie, who appeared to be daydreaming. Or he was lost in the way an old man gets lost in a forest of events and people lining the twisted path of his memory. “That kind of thinking will get you nowhere, Eddie. You’re feeling gnarly because you went to the funeral of a buddy. Someone your age. Our age. It’s bound to get a man thinking. And get ready for more of it. We’re all going to be kicking the bucket before too long. The funerals will be coming hot and heavy. You and I are racing to the finish, and my guess is I’ll beat you there. Hell, I’ll be the winner in the race of life. Or death, I guess. Don’t know if I’ll be happy about that, but at least I’ll be a winner. At something.”

Eddie pulled a long strip of thick paper from the pocket of his denim jacket and laid it next to him on the swing. It was over seven inches in length and a little more than two inches wide. Through a smoky haze, Nils squinted as he looked at the strip of paper. It was a bookmark bearing a stylized black-white-red sketch of a salmon in the manner of Pacific Northwest Native American art.

“Now why’d you bring that thing around, Eddie?” asked Nils, his voice rasping like a coarsely grained file on metal.

To read more, see here.


Book Notes 2016.2

Here are random comments on recent fiction (and one irresistible nonfiction work) I’ve read in the last few weeks.

Bill Beverly, Dodgers (Crown, 2016). This is a superbly written tale of a black teenager’s odyssey from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles to—of all places—Wisconsin, where along with three other young men, he is to murder a witness who threatens his uncle’s crime empire. Part road trip narrative, part thriller, the novel is brilliantly paced, and demonstrates the author’s eye for subtle regional detail and textured characterization.

 Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger, What is a Dog? (University of Chicago, 2016). One of the better nonfiction reads I’ve come across in a while. Written by two distinguished evolutionary biologists, this study will make the average dog owner look twice at the canid of the household.

 Don DeLillo, Zero K (Scribner, 2016). In Zero K, Jeff Lockhart, the thirty-something son of a wealthy businessman, visits his father and stepmother in a compound where people can be preserved cryogenically in anticipation of resurrection in the future. Jeff learns that his stepmother Artis, terminally ill, has decided to enter a state of suspension with the promise of some day returning to a notionally better world. Jeff’s father, Ross, has decided to follow her, though he is still healthy. Jeff is repulsed by his father’s decision, and is determined to experience life in all its messiness and indirection, knowing that its richness comes in part from seeking its confused end.

It has been years since I last read DeLillo, and it was a wonderful experience to step back into his strange narrative world. The imagery and language are devastatingly effective, and though there are the usual self-indulgent surges of literary fireworks, the overall mood is wrought so expertly that the reader is willing to drift along in DeLillo’s prose until he is smacked in the face with some new revelation or turn of phrase. Too, DeLillo decodes the dark undercurrents of American life even more effectively than T. C. Boyle, another novelist unafraid of tackling serious political and social themes. The book’s crescendo comes in the last two pages, which are as beautiful, humane, and moving as any fiction I’ve read in many years.

Karan Majahan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016). Everyone dies in terrorism, not only the victims but survivors and perpetrators as well. This is the “association” of death referred to in the title. As for “small bombs,” the author aims to show how smaller terrorist acts do even more damage than large, media-saturated events because “a few have to carry the burden of the majority,” in the words of Vikas, the father of two boys killed in a 1996 New Delhi terrorist attack that frames the novel. The greatest advantage of the novel is its sympathetic understanding of the terrorists, whose alienation and loss is, in an oblique way, mirrored in the survivors’ lives. But the last 30-40 pages lurch toward this theme and never really manage it in a convincing way. The writing is inconsistent, achieving lovely imagery one moment, then veering into pedestrian territory the next. Annoyingly, the writer also often inserts backstory at odd or inappropriate moments. The novel deserves to be read, but addressing the ethically fraught theme of identification between terrorists and their victims in a convincing manner remains an elusive literary goal.

Margaret Malone, People Like You (Atelier26, 2015). Funny, sardonic, generous, sad—these stories evoke people you know, people like you and me, who try to do the right things, but often have the vaguest sense of what “right” means, and who go into the world getting it all wrong—and somehow still surviving and maybe even loving. I love the minimalist style, the quirky tone, and the endearing indirection of the characters. I read these stories with images in my head of people walking around in the dark and repeatedly bumping into walls, and then still keeping on.

Stewart O’Nan, City of Secrets (Viking, 2016). Deftly written, with a compelling cast of characters and a fascinating setting—Jerusalem in Mandate Palestine just after World War II—this novel is both psychologically complex and suspenseful. A smart political thriller.


Strange Crazy-Making Double-Speak

This piece in The Cap Times (13 May 2016) comes from Caroline Levine, who will be resigning from her job as professor and chair of the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this summer, after 14 years of service. It is a revealing insight into the contradictions of Republican magical thinking with regard to the state university system. 

Gov. Scott Walker has blasted University of Wisconsin faculty for not being interested in “delivering value” to Wisconsin. There are lots of ways to measure value, of course, but let’s focus on the kind Walker himself extols most: market value.

Ironically, it is Walker himself and the rest of the GOP who are preventing the University of Wisconsin from offering a competitive product in a global marketplace.

Let’s start with price. Businesses charge market rates for their products and services. Top-tier private colleges and universities right now are charging $44,000 or more in tuition each year, more than four times the rate of in-state tuition for an education at the UW-Madison,ranked in the top 50 universities around the world.

Why are prices so low? Because politicians have put a cap on tuition.

It’s like telling Toyota that they must charge a particular price for their cars, while letting Honda and General Motors and Hyundai sell the same — or inferior — vehicles to the same customers at four times the cost.

Low prices might be a great way to compete, but politicians have also artificially limited the UW’s pool of consumers. There’s huge demand for Wisconsin higher education around the world. But politicians insist that the university must limit the number of students admitted from out of state to no more than 27.5 percent of the university’s total enrollment. They’ve also capped tuition for out-of-state students to a price much lower than that of our peers. The University of Michigan charges $43,118 to those from outside of Michigan. The University of Wisconsin charges $29,665 for out-of-state students.

This is something like telling Toyota that they must not only charge between a quarter and a half of the market price for an excellent product, but also that they have to send away many thousands of eager customers who are willing to pay much more.

What a bargain! But Wisconsin’s leaders are not praising faculty for managing to offer a world-class product at a fraction of the market price. They are scolding us for failing to deliver value.

To be sure, the university receives state funding, and so it makes sense that we should offer a subsidy to Wisconsin residents. I strongly support increases in public funding for education myself, but in order to understand the value of a Wisconsin education, we need to measure the amount of the subsidy against the actual cost of educating students.

So let’s now set the approximate cost of educating students against the value of the state subsidies. The UW-Madison is receiving 15 percent of its total budget from state monies. Tuition amounts to only another 18 percent of the total. Students also cover part of the total budget through payments for housing and food, but that means that someone other than the state and students is shouldering at least 50 percent of the university’s budget.

What private business would shoulder 50 percent of its costs, passing on only 50 percent to consumers? That is exactly what the UW-Madison does, making up the difference between its artificially low tuition, set by politicians, and the real cost of student education. Faculty and staff at the university work every day to pay that difference — by winning grants, pursuing gifts, and developing entrepreneurial ventures.

Walker’s chiding the faculty is like telling Toyota that they are not delivering value unless they are charging much less for their cars than it takes to make the cars in the first place. I may be only an English professor, but even I can tell you math like that isn’t going to work out too well for the company.

Of course, Walker’s contention is that the university’s costs are just too high — bloated with too many overpaid workers. So let’s talk about salaries. I don’t like the big disparities between professional wages and those of other workers myself, but I can assure you that salaries for faculty are a response to a globally competitive marketplace.

Faculty are not unionized. Five colleagues in my own department have been wooed away to other universities in the past year with salary offers between 50 percent and 100 percent more than what they were earning at the University of Wisconsin.

Imagine blasting workers at Toyota because they were asking to earn salaries equal to the pay of peers with similar skills at Honda or Chevy.

I myself am now leaving the University of Wisconsin after 14 years. At my new university in another state, I will have stronger tenure protections than I now have here. I will earn about 50 percent more than my current salary for the same job. And I will be free from the strange crazy-making double-speak that on one hand demands that higher education deliver value like a business, and on the other hand, methodically prevents it from doing so.

To read the original piece, go here.


Forthcoming short stories

On the fiction front, I have three stories appearing in the weeks to come. On May 15, Stockholm Review of Literature will publish my “Rake,” a longish tale of two elderly men whose lives were shaped by a traumatic event that remains an open scar.

In June, *82 Review will publish “Logical,” a flash fiction piece about a father and son’s fateful trip to an auto salvage yard.

This summer also, Riptide in England will publish my “Cadillac,” a tale of one man’s boredom with success and his unorthodox way of dealing with it.



How Much Longer?

Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times, has written an insightful piece on Scott Walker’s years as Wisconsin Governor. Here it is in full, with a link to the original.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the nonprofit that keeps an eye on who’s contributing to our elected politicians and why, has compiled a list of what it calls the worst 100 bills that Gov. Scott Walker has signed during his first five years in office and what they’ve meant to the state’s common good.

Those top 100 assaults on Wisconsin’s democracy drew tons of money from more than a dozen special interests that benefited from the bills. They include business, manufacturing, construction, real estate, energy, transportation, agriculture and banking interests. Together those interests directly contributed $14.4 million to legislators, $12.2 million of which went to the majority Republicans, and $32.2 million to Walker. The contributions were made between January of 2011, when Walker and the GOP took control of state government, through December of 2015.

Those donations don’t include millions more in indirect contributions to the same lawmakers. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the National Rifle Association and the so-called American Federation for Children secretly contributed tens of millions more to grease the skids for their legislation.

There are no similar sources of funds, of course, for the average Joe or Jill Citizen.

Consequently, legislators passed, and Walker signed, bills to restrict the legal options available to victims of asbestos-related injuries, change the definition of lead paint to allow more lead content, limit the options for women to sue to enforce equal pay rules, limit the ability of communities to require rental unit inspections, and otherwise tilt rental regulations in favor of the landlords.

All were bills, of course, favoring special interests over the common people. And that’s just for starters.

Out-of-state pipeline companies were given new powers to condemn private property for their pipelines and other projects. Nursing home operators were made exempt from state penalties if they were already found in violation of federal laws. Compensatory and punitive damages for racial, sexual and other acts of employment discrimination were eliminated.

All that on top of the more publicly debated attacks on public school funding in favor of expanding vouchers for students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense, the $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System while simultaneously authorizing $250 million in state bonding to build a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, and, of course, the passage of so-called “right to work” legislation to make it tougher for labor unions to represent working people.

Thanks to their hold on the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, and having secured a conservative majority on the state Supreme Court, the Republicans have been relentless in changing the historic character of Wisconsin government.

And just in case their hold isn’t secure enough, legislators and the governor succeeded in changing campaign finance laws so that special interest donors can double their contributions and can keep secret who they work for.

The question remains: How long will Wisconsin citizens put up with this?

Plain Talk: Scott Walker’s worst 100: Let us count the damage” The Cap Times, May 8, 2016.


UW-Madison Faculty Votes “No Confidence”

The Faculty Senate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has voted “no confidence” in the UW System President and Regents. The vote constitutes a powerful rebuke of the Republican party’s policies toward higher education in the state. I include below the full text of the Faculty Senate’s May 2 resolution.

Resolution on actions by UW System and Board of Regents

Approved by the Faculty Senate, May 2, 2016

WHEREAS faculty are responsible for ensuring a quality education for students, serving the state of Wisconsin, and contributing to knowledge through research;

WHEREAS fulfillment of these responsibilities has long been guided and enabled by the University’s traditions of the Wisconsin Idea, robust tenure policies and shared governance;

WHEREAS these practices have enabled a state of average size and wealth to enjoy a university system of worldwide renown at unparalleled cost effectiveness;

WHEREAS UW System President Ray Cross and Regents by their actions have overseen a weakening of these traditions and engaged in practices that fall short of principles of responsible governance in their stewardship of the University;

WHEREAS on November 2, 2015, the UW-Madison Faculty Senate adopted new, campus-specific policies relating to faculty layoff and termination, as required by Act 55;

WHEREAS none of the UW System Tenure Policy Task Force members were ever asked to endorse the report issued by the chairman of the task force, and the chairman’s report failed to outline many concerns expressed by non-regent members of the committee, and it was not released until January 22, 2016, a month after the task force concluded its work, which was too late for adequate consideration;

WHEREAS in March 2016 the Board of Regents adopted new UW System tenure policies based on the report from the UW System Tenure Policy Task Force without adopting any of the modifications requested by UW System faculty, thereby weakening professional standards of academic due process beyond what Act 55 required;

WHEREAS on April 4, 2016, the UW-Madison Faculty Senate resolved that the previously adopted campus-specific UW-Madison policies relating to faculty layoff and termination should be accepted by the Board of Regents without material alteration, or if alterations were deemed necessary, the Board of Regents should return the UW-Madison policies back to the Faculty Senate for modification;

WHEREAS on April 6, 2016, UW System general counsel Tomas L. Stafford made material and substantial changes to the UW-Madison policies to be considered by the Board of Regents on April 7-8, flagrantly violating local faculty governance and failing to provide representatives of UW-Madison time to review and consider the additional changes;

WHEREAS representatives of UW-Madison were asked by the Board of Regents education committee for their opinion of these changes without time for consideration or counsel;

WHEREAS the process by which changes to UW-Madison policies were made—directly by UW System general counsel and the Board of Regents instead of returning the policies to the UW-Madison Faculty Senate for modification—violates local faculty governance and erodes our tradition of active shared governance;

WHEREAS, owing to the changes to UW-Madison policies made by UW System general counsel and adopted by the Board of Regents, administration now need only “consider” (not “pursue”) alternatives to layoff, the chancellor no longer needs the approval of faculty governance bodies (only to consult with them) to discontinue academic programs leading to layoff, a faculty hearing committee is no longer authorized to question whether program discontinuation is based on primarily educational reasons, Faculty Policies & Procedures 5.02 is not applicable to program discontinuance based on educational considerations that may result in faculty layoff under Faculty Policies & Procedures 10, program changes may now be made on the basis of non-educational criteria such as “comparative cost-effectiveness” and budgetary prioritization, severance pay is now at the chancellor’s discretion and no longer guaranteed, and funds for retraining displaced faculty are no longer guaranteed;

WHEREAS the UW-Madison policies relating to faculty layoff and termination, as modified by UW System general counsel and adopted by the Board of Regents, are not consistent with the high standards set by the American Association of University Professors in its Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure;

WHEREAS the UW-Madison Faculty Senate previously resolved to “engage in all appropriate collective action” to “uphold and defend” the principles regarding tenure that the Faculty Senate endorsed on November 2, 2015 (Faculty Document 2586);

WHEREAS the decades-long tradition of active shared governance has made the University of Wisconsin unique among universities of its stature, fostered a tremendous sense of loyalty and commitment among its faculty, and energized grass-roots creativity in research and teaching;

WHEREAS the failure of the UW System President and the Board of Regents adequately to protect academic due process and shared governance has damaged the reputation of UW-Madison as a great state university that encourages continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found;

WHEREAS the erosion of tenure and shared governance in conjunction with budget cuts is likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on faculty who are already most marginalized and/or engaged in politically controversial research;

WHEREAS program changes based on non-educational considerations, the erosion of academic due process, and the circumventing of faculty governance in conjunction with budget cuts jeopardize the quality of students’ education;

WHEREAS affordable tuition, adequate budget, strong tenure and shared governance are essential to the quality of a university’s educational, scholarly, and outreach missions;

WHEREAS a primary function of the university, to aid our students in the development of the critical thinking skills they will bring to bear on their personal experiences and the challenges faced by human society, is impaired when the authority for the educational direction of the university may be wielded to suppress instruction in areas that are deemed risky or controversial;

WHEREAS the erosion of active shared governance in conjunction with budget cuts diminishes access, affordability, and educational resources for our students, as well as support for scholarship and its associated economic benefits, as well as outreach and services to the citizens of the State of Wisconsin, and harms the quality of our university;

It is hereby RESOLVED that the actions of President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents give the UW-Madison Faculty Senate no confidence in their commitment to defending the Wisconsin Idea, extending the benefits of the University to every citizen in the state;

It is further RESOLVED that the UW-Madison Faculty Senate calls on System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents to recommit themselves to the Wisconsin Idea by carrying out their responsibilities and working with us to strengthen the quality of our state universities, in particular by working with the state legislature to make a positive case for improved access, affordability, and educational resources for our students; for additional support for scholarship and its associated economic benefits; for greater resources for outreach and services to citizens of the State; and by truly respecting, advancing, and participating in shared governance at the UW System.


A Glass of Water

Sometimes a glass of water is more than a glass of water. It was heartening to hear President Obama shoot from the hip in his speech in Flint on Wednesday. Beside demonstratively drinking a glass of Flint water, he made several strong points about the Republican party’s penny-wise and pound-foolish practices in matters of governance, an issue I took up in my “More Flints to Come.” Here are two excerpts from his speech, courtesy of Politicususa.com that are worth noting:

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how responsible you are, how you raise your kids. You can’t set up a whole water system for a city. That’s not something you do by yourself. You do it with other people. You can’t hire your own fire department or your own police force, or your own army. They’re things we have to do together. Basic things that we all benefit from.”

“Volunteers don’t build water systems and keep lead from leaching into our drinking glasses. We can’t rely on faith groups to reinforce bridges and repave runways at the airport…You hear a lot about government overreach. Oh, Obama, he’s for big government. Listen, it’s not government overreach to say our government’s responsible for making sure that you can wash your hands in your own sink, or shower in your own home, or cook for your family. These are the most basic services. There’s no more basic element sustaining human life than water. It’s not too much to expect for all Americans that their water is going to be safe.”