Wednesday, February 23, 2011


You don't get to be a professor at a top university by settling or compromising. You get there by striving, competing, and working against all odds to cram extra hours into already-long days. You expect the best, of everyone.

So it's hard to be a professor at a public university right now. Almost by definition, public universities aren't the top of the heap in spending on the things that professors are trained to care most about-- research, salaries, resources. This leads to frustration, anger, and indignation when our talents go unrecognized, our fields disrespected, and our friends leave for private universities.

It's hard to be a professor at a public university, for sure.

Of course, it's also hard to be a kid whose entire future depends on achieving economic stability and that seems to depend on college-- but college is increasingly out of reach. You're told that the flagship college in your state is really the only one that's worth going to and despite your desire to ignore those elitist comments, they nag at you. You want to go there, but annual costs of attendance are more than your family makes in a year. Your parents didn't go to college, and none of your friends managed to get to that place. So really, why bother? Why work your tail off in high school to get the best grades, work after school jobs to save money, and why knock yourself out to take that ACT? You're never going to be able to get in, and if you do, it's gonna financially cripple your family to afford it. The government has never come through with real financial help before, why expect it to now?

Somehow, my heart tells me it's harder to be that kid than it is to be me.

It's time for UW-Madison to be with the children of Wisconsin's working poor families. Offering financial aid -- accompanied as it is by a byzantine system of paperwork, rules, and caveats-- is clearly insufficient to overcome the fear instilled by widespread talk that tuition is high and getting higher. (I am a researcher of financial aid-- it "works" but it by no means demonstrates sufficiently large effects to hold students harmless from high tuition.) Financial aid won't help combat word on the street that the place is so elite it won't even hang with the other UW universities or colleges anymore. It's out for itself--its alumni, current students, and professors-- not for you.

I am not naive-- we are going to take a bone-crushing hit this year. Our belts are going to tighten so much that we can hardly breathe-- at least we will think that's true. But the fact is, UW-Madison doesn't know poverty. Not even close. It's been blessed to have what it needs to be nearly everything it's wanted to be. That's getting harder to do, and now in these times choices will have to be made. Programs will have to be cut. Faculty will have to teach. Class sizes might have to be a bit larger. The truth is, we will survive this-- and we will be more respectable for it. UW-Madison is nothing without the respect of Wisconsin. Leaving the state behind is not an acceptable approach to accommodating our desires to be the "best."