STEVENSON: This education is ours, so act like it

May 5, 2010
Sam Stevenson

Want to travel back in time? Drive 80 miles east to Milwaukee, park on Downer and Kenwood and walk a block west. Complementing the anachronistic architecture crowding around, the tenor of student body activism pulsating across the UW-Milwaukee campus could easily fool the most well-informed Madisonian into thinking he or she had traveled to another era, one where college students fought hard to protect and nourish their education.

The impassioned and fair demands made by UWM students last March precipitated last Thursday’s revealing panel discussion with embattled UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago. Previously, UWM’s participation in a national day of action in defense of higher education on March 4 met a rude end when administrative officials called in police to break up a passionate though peaceful demonstration. Campus and city police aggressively targeted students with pepper spray and physical violence in an effort to neutralize vociferous demands for an audience with Santiago.

Thursday’s event constituted the first phase of a reckoning the maladroit Santiago has made little effort to avoid. Students, as well as faculty, have grown increasingly frustrated with Santiago’s prioritization of pleased commercial partners over fortified scholastic fundamentals. The chancellor’s spineless justifications for breaking up the demonstration, followed by his worrisome refusal to urge that charges against demonstrators be dropped, has generated a substantial acrimony on campus. These frustrations have all informed a growing sense that Santiago is unfit to advocate effectively for increased state funding, much less organize students and faculty around this important issue. In such context, it is not surprising Santiago was quickly put on the defensive during the panel discussion.

In an effort to defuse the unified voice that had called him to question, Santiago made a drearily defeatist argument that there was little he could do to combat the precipitous decline in state funding for higher education over recent years. He should have been more leery to withdraw so pessimistically from the university’s future. His uninspired attitude was quickly called out and countered. The case was put forth that since the funding decline has resulted from a decreased concern for higher education among legislators, lobbies and citizens, it is incumbent upon students, faculty and the administration to organize and push back through concrete political action.

In the end, the panel formalized the growing doubts over Santiago’s ability to lead the university and be supported by students and faculty.

Meanwhile, back in Madison, the student voice remains largely mute. March 4 passed uneventfully here, and most students seem comfortable allowing higher education to be funded and structured by people with no vital concern for student interests or the future of higher education in Wisconsin.

Fortunately, we’ve hired a competent chancellor whose work on campus remains far removed from Santiago’s clumsy, if not listless, tenure. Chancellor Martin’s measured approach appears impervious to knee-jerk reactions against countervailing forces; faced with demanding students, her administration would at the very least pass on bellicose confrontation for an amicable attempt at co-optation. No doubt, Biddy is a smooth operator with good intentions. That is not, however, a good reason to willfully acquiesce to administration or faculty, recalcitrance to address reasonable grievances.

As it stands, too many in the campus press and ASM appear loath to acknowledge this point. Such attitudes were all too apparent at the new ASM session’s first meeting this past Sunday. Even while the new leadership’s independence from power remains untested, we should hope that blind sycophancy will not rule the day as it has in past sessions.

Acquisition of box seats at football games, transcontinental air rides and letters of recommendation from the chancellor are not characteristic of a student advocate as much as an adept résumé engineer (I can almost hear Lord Puffington’s disappointed sobbing). The Associated Students of Madison’s new leaders should be hesitant to claim the administration as a constant and exceptional ally of the student body lest ASM risks diminishing the student voice and its ability to exert pressure, to the point of obsolescence.

While the demands of UWM’s vivacious student advocates may seem removed from the issues in contestation here, the struggle to defend and grow state funding should unite us all. Important lobbying operations are already in place, and with any luck, next year’s Legislative Affairs committee will press to bring this issue to the fore in the state Legislature. ASM’s capacity to organize the student body around common-ground issues should be fully utilized to mobilize student votes in favor of student interests.

Students must also refuse to stand idly by while faculty or administrative officials implement policies or refuse changes that improve the affordability and quality of their education. For instance, last week the University Committee refused to bring the formation of a Textbook Affordability Shared Governance Committee — a crucial tool in lowering textbook costs through faculty involvement — to a vote in the Faculty Senate. Such arrogant obstinacy from faculty reluctant to collaborate with students is exemplary of the perspectives opposed to student interests.

If students don’t wish to see public education in Wisconsin deteriorate and lose its purpose in the coming years, we will need to speak up. Matching the volume of UWM’s budding roar would be a good place to start.

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Sam Stevenson is a graduate student in public health.

Original article here...