Leaving Wisconsin

Jesse Stommel

Increasingly, I think the work of education is activism not teaching.

I was born in Madison in 1976. I left Wisconsin when I was 6 years old and grew up in Colorado. I came back to Madison in 1999. After a year working at a bookstore and living on Blount st. near James Madison park, I decided to turn down an offer from the UW-Madison English graduate program and went back to Colorado for my Ph.D. I was offered more funding at CU Boulder, more teaching, and (most importantly) more opportunities for training in teaching.

Two and a half years ago, I moved back to Wisconsin for a tenure-track faculty position at UW-Madison.

It has been fraught. And now I find myself leaving again.

For anyone following the news about the gutting of public education in the state of Wisconsin, this announcement probably doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. But I’m surprised at how quickly I’ve found myself surrounded by cardboard boxes.

I’ve accepted a non-tenure-track position as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington, a public liberal arts institution in Virginia. I will be starting in October. Taking this job was an easy decision. I’m challenged by the shoes I’ll fill and excited about the people I’ll work with. Because of them, I knew within one hour of the start of the campus visit that I would accept the job if it was offered.

But leaving Wisconsin is still hard. Some of the first words I wrote to a close colleague in May when the dominoes here began to fall: “I’m intensely loyal. I don’t abandon ship, but I looked around today and just saw water — no ship.”

There are many reasons I’m deciding to go:

  • In a few short months, Wisconsin has gone from being the only state to protect tenure and shared governance in state law to being the only state to limit tenure and shared governance in state law. I’ve been less disheartened by the fact of this and more by the lack of response from University of Wisconsin leadership, in spite of nationwide calls for active resistance.
  • Our leaders have insisted we’re “safe.” It is one thing to take down tenure. It’s another thing to take down tenure while insisting tenure is “safe” and “nothing will change.” And it’s yet a third thing to take down tenure while saying tenure is “safe” and have people actually believe it. We are in George Orwell territory in the state of Wisconsin. I am concerned for UW-Madison, and I am even more concerned for how this will impact other UW institutions, the state system, and public higher education as a whole.
  • I have said before that I believe tenure is a red herring. This is a politically-motivated attack on the values that underlie tenure at the University of Wisconsin: job security, academic freedom, and shared governance.
  • About six months ago, when UW started to feel pressure, I was told to “be careful.” Since then, I’ve been advised many times to compromise my work for tenure (or to just do different work altogether).
  • The institutional climate at UW-Madison has suffered. It has become, quite frankly, an unfriendly environment, and my own efforts at collaboration have been repeatedly frustrated. Public scholars have come under direct attack. In our work as educators, we must leave no stone unturned, and suddenly there are snakes under some of the stones. And, in order to do our work, we now have to put our jobs at risk.
  • The Wisconsin Idea, the principle that the work of UW extends beyond its own borders, is what brought me to this institution, but the commitment to it is being directly challenged. Again, the harder part has been the lack of a strong and collective outcry. Many have been caught up in abstraction, guarding the words — ones like “tenure” and “truth” — while their meaning has been stripped.
  • My work — the work I was hired to do — has not been supported. While I was initially assured that digital work for broad public audiences would count, I was later told I should wait to do that work until after tenure and focus on traditionally peer-reviewed publications for academic audiences. In January, the following bolded words were sent to me in a letter for my official file: “The Committee wants to send a clear message that what matters is tenure, what matters for tenure is peer review, and work posted on the web is not considered peer‐reviewed.”
  • Finally, because of the current budget cuts, my husband is being laid off from the spousal hire position he has held at UW-Madison. He was officially notified about his impending layoff in the subject line of a calendar invite: “layoff meeting.”

This is not what I expected when I moved my family to Wisconsin two and a half years ago. When I took this job, I thought I’d be here for life. I was born in this state, my closest mentor was born in this state, and I have some of the most daring and brilliant colleagues here. We have collaborated in spite of systems that have made that increasingly difficult. I remain awed by what we’ve built together.

I’m awed by Sage Goellner’s resolute calm. Sage is doing the kind of outreach scholarship and teaching that brought me to UW-Madison. Few understand the Wisconsin Idea as deeply as she does. I’m awed by Sarah Marty’s ability to keenly balance what would drive anyone else into a frenzy. She has taught me to build things bigger than I thought I could build. I’m awed by Chuck Rybak’s resolve and moved by his sadness. He has spoken words I couldn’t find. I’m awed by Sara Goldrick-Rab’s willful optimism. I’m awed by Brianna Marshall, Joshua Calhoun, Lisa Hager, Jason Lee. I’m awed by every single one of the students I’ve met and worked with. These people are the reason leaving is hard.

Still, the community of UW has changed, and the changes will have a direct effect on the learning that can happen here. The attacks on shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom are part of a divide and conquer mechanism that deters all of us from advocating for each other. I am in favor of lifting up non-tenure-track faculty, students, and staff so that universities are not caste systems with an oppressed contingent labor class. I am not in favor of making everyone and everything in education adjunct.

I keep seeing the word “unfortunate” used to describe the situation at UW. This is not the right word. What’s become of education in the state of Wisconsin is not fate, accident, or misfortune, but has been carefully coordinated and calculated. How about instead we use words like “horrific,” “appalling,” “insidious,” “treacherous”? There is nothing strategic about understating what’s happening to the UW System.

This announcement is more anthemic than I intended it to be. I’ve been incredibly passionate in my love of this place, and so I find myself equally passionate now as I think about my next steps.

Many of my UW colleagues are fielding similar offers or are also thinking about next steps. Some will make the decision to leave. Some will have that decision made for them. Students will be left without mentors. Faculty will be left without collaborators. Education will be left without advocates. Not everyone will leave. Not everyone can leave. And, hopefully, all of us that do leave — and those that stay — will keep fighting.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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