Freitag, 18. Februar 2011

Wisconsin: Open for Business?

Kurz und schmerzlos—short and painless—is a German expression that captures and endorses brevity. This is perhaps what Scott Walker, the Republican Governor of the State of Wisconsin had in mind when he declared his Budget “Repair” Bill on Friday February 11, a declaration that came with the audacious intention to have it passed within a week.

The following thoughts are neither short nor painless.

When a public servant elected through due process in a nation that claims to be the beacon of democracy in the world decides to cut short rights of workers to collectively bargain and negotiate their compensation and benefits, “painless” is not the word that automatically describes the situation.

I have been going to the State Capitol every day as part of mass-demonstrations for workers’ rights. Earlier this week, I was in a sea of school teachers of all levels from all over Wisconsin, some with their families, many accompanied by their students. Yesterday and today I hung out with UW graduate students and faculty colleagues, all of us together with thousands of school teachers, high school students, public workers from all branches imaginable. I have been talking to many strangers, making new friends. It has been a trying but memorable time—one that I will be proud of for the rest of my life.

Outside the Capitol building, as the collective marches on, and inside, as it fills the beautiful rotunda to chant in unison: “KILL THE BILL” and “FORWARD, NOT BACKWARDS,” differences of age, gender, race, and ethnicity do not matter.

What matters is sending a strong political message to a regime that with astounding alacrity is fashioning itself as autocratic, nepotistic, opportunistic, in sum, anti-democratic. If recent news from Tunisia to Egypt to now Iran and as these lines are written, even Libya, are any proof, these political features are as out of fashion as the giant shoulder-pads from the 1980s.

What matters is sending a strong description of teachers’ work in solidarity with workers from manufacturing plants, transport services, public utilities and health care, even those who work for public safety and fire-fighting services—whose exemption from the Bill is in line with the “Divide and Conquer” policy that French and British Colonial Regimes carried out in Asia and Africa for 200 years!

What matters is the hope, as I see, that Governor Walker’s “Divide and Conquer” will not work. Police and Capitol security have been most polite and congenial to the demonstrators. Yesterday the firefighters demonstrated their support of labor unions. Today, I have been told, early in the morning some police personnel and firefighters brought treats for those who kept vigil all night. Why? Governor Walker forgets that our police personnel and firefighters went through various levels of education, from acquisition of basic literacy when they were children all the way to specialized professional training when they heard their calling. There was a teacher somewhere who played a role in shaping their futures and perhaps even became a role-model. In addition, police personnel and firefighters also have children who go to schools, universities, and vocational training institutions. Like all parents, I’m sure they want the best for their children.

What has mattered in Wisconsin this week is captured by the sign: “CARE ABOUT YOUR EDUCATORS AS THEY CARE ABOUT YOUR CHILDREN.” That Wisconsin educators care about their students is something I have witnessed since the beginning of my employment here in 2001.

I am an educator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the last decade, I have taught, trained, advised, critiqued, and interacted with innumerable students from diverse backgrounds—first generation, legacy students, working-class, upper-class: a large number of them children of public servants of the state of Wisconsin—that proud middle class who defines America as it stands today.

I teach students who are prepared to come to the University by teachers from all over Wisconsin, from the US, and from around the world. What Wisconsin students have in common with others is the desire to learn, the hope of a better future for themselves, their families and communities, the drive to excel—combined with the anxiety to succeed in an increasingly globalizing world economy. We at UW-Madison understand it like nobody else, and we contribute more than our fair share, for a fraction of what our colleagues at peer-institutions receive as compensation.

The research that my colleagues and I conduct and publish gives our students the confidence that they are learning from people who will push the limits of their thinking because they are constantly pushing the limits of their own. Be it the Humanities, the Natural Sciences, Applied Sciences, Business, or Technology—in fields of knowledge that might sound highly important to some but obscure to others—our students know that faculty and graduate students are asking new questions of knowledge and the society. In other words, our research shapes and informs our teaching—what we impart to our students is the courage to ask new questions of age-old issues and phenomenon, and the inspiration to imagine innovative modes of approaching those questions.

Our undergraduates also know that we as faculty and graduate students volunteer our time to partake in “shared governance.” Some of us think of the best possible ways of making changes to curriculum and requirements, others yet design and manage study abroad opportunities, yet others sit on multiple committees to make sure that our undergraduates and graduate students are getting the best possible training possible. And we do not do this alone—administrators at all levels across campus, public works and janitorial staff, housing and kitchen workers, gym employees—all of us work together to create the best possible learning and living environment for our students.

My colleagues and friends across campus who care about other peoples’ children in classrooms, office hours, dorms, dining halls, were also cared by educators, and they continue the tradition. The “I [Heart] Wisconsin/ Governor Walker Don’t Break Our [Hearts]” message that members of the University, unionized (TAA) or not (Profs., UW-Madison Faculty Organizing for Change) have been carrying over to the Capitol is not merely about our own rights to bargain and negotiate appropriate compensation for our work. The ongoing participation of us all asks the current elected representatives three questions: Does the State of Wisconsin care about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of its public workers? Does the State of Wisconsin care about public access to highest and best standards of education? Does the State of Wisconsin care about intellectual and financial investment in a generation of educated members of the society who are competitive with the best and the brightest nationally, and internationally?

Like many members of the UW-Madison and the larger Madison community, I was born elsewhere—my training as a citizen of the world happened in the developing world, where labor unions were, and still are, part of the democratic core of the nation. My access to education was made possible by many members of my lower middle-class extended family. My aunts were teachers in state schools, and successfully bargained their collective rights to compensation for over 30 years of their career as teachers. My father worked for the state electricity board, was member of their workers’ union, and knew the power of collective bargaining. We were all supported by my mother—homemaker, owner of a "mini"-dairy—who taught, and continues to teach the family: “United We Stand.” My elders taught me life-lessons in politics, but also fostered respect for the profession of teaching, and the responsibility to community that comes with an individual's quest for knowledge.

When I was offered a job at UW-Madison, I thought this would be a perfect fit (and not just because Wisconsin is “America’s Dairy Land,” and thanks to my mother I can tell a Jersey from a Holstein). My colleagues and students helped in strengthening that feeling—the demonstrations in Madison over the last week have further strengthened my belief in public access to education through democratic institutions. On 02.17.2011, the Joint Finance Committee passed the bill 12-4 on party lines. But the Democratic representatives acted right in that they moved out of the state and stalled the voting. Late afternoon when I went back to the Capitol, Governor Walker came on television. People were chanting against him, and there he was--"mediating" himself through 4 television screens. It was one of the oddest disconnect with public that I ever saw in a leader.

A democracy is made of liberals and conservatives and everyone in between. A democracy is defined by dialogue—not autocratic overnight manipulation of policy. It is the responsibility of an elected official leader to consider and incorporate opposing views to give democracy its due. Democracy is not just a dream or an idea that lives on its own—it’s a daily referendum that comes with responsibilities and obligations!

If the Bill passes, if Governor Walker does not open himself to conversation with others, Wisconsin will have compromised its democratic tradition.

While the passing of the Bill will affect the overall conducive living environment all over Wisconsin, it will affect UW-Madison in its own special way. Let me express my views in a language that is increasingly becoming the weapon against intellectual enterprise--the language of corporatism. I'm not an expert--just good at learning "foreign"-languages to a degree.

In the twenty-first century, more so than ever before, a university is not just an idealized temple of knowledge, to be brushed away as a burden on a state. A university is an institution that specializes in the business of ideas. It has become a brand that commodifies knowledge. We as professors might like it or not, but we are both mediators of this commodity, and commodities ourselves. Production and sustenance of excellent commodity requires financial investment in the brand. Conducive environment for teaching, learning, and research (not only sports!) helps to generate the brand value of a university—where everyone from a physical plant worker to a librarian to the vice chancellor plays his/her own designated role. If one thinks of professors and students and university workers as commodities and brand ambassadors, one should not forget that in the corporate sector, the key is to work towards brand superiority. No one says, "we will collectively work hard to achieve brand mediocrity!" And no bright and dedicated employee wants to be associated with a mediocre brand with a lame upper management.

In the larger landscape of the State of Wisconsin, if the government continues to divide and conquer, if it works against compensating people according to their talent and skills, if it suppresses dialogue and debate, the government kills the brand it tried to sell to potential business ventures.

The choice our elected officials have to make is not between the proposed Bill or layoffs. The choice they have in front of them is clear: Kill the Bill, or Kill the Brand that they are so desperately hoping to sell to potential businesses and investors.

Walker claims that Wisconsin is open for business. If Wisconsin shuts itself down for the business of exchange of ideas, exodus will follow. It will neither be short, nor painless!


PS Note to Employers: My presence at the Capitol and the time of composition of this piece did not disrupt my responsibilities to UW-Madison. I will gladly share a link to my “wiscal” should you have any questions. On Wisconsin! ;-)