The University of Wisconsin System “Differend” or “Regentsplained” Again (I Don’t Like It)

“Strange voice on the telephone / Tellin’ me I better leave you ‘lone / Why won’t somebody say what’s goin’ on / Oh, oh, I think I’ve been through this before // Looks like I’ve been fooled again / Looks like I’m the fool again / I don’t like it, I don’t like it” –Tom Petty

When I returned home yesterday from a very productive weekend at the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (fortunately UW-Milwaukee still considers presenting at an academic conference to be “essential travel”), I found an email from Regina Millner, Vice-President of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, asking me if I was available for a phone conversation with her. This morning I called her. At first she suggested that we find a time to meet in Milwaukee in the next week or two, as she would be coming to UWM to meet with our Academic Staff Association. But before booting up my Outlook Calendar, I asked her what kind of outcome she was looking for from such a conversation, as I had no official position in the UWM governance structure and couldn’t really effect institutional change. She said that she just wanted to “explain” some things to me about the political background for state-supported education in Wisconsin. And we were off. We had a cordial, at times mutually passionate, conversation which lasted for roughly an hour, a good portion of which was taken up by what can best be understood as a variant of “mansplaining” that I would call “Regentsplaining.”

From our conversation it became clear to me that Regent Millner is genuinely committed to the well-being of the University of Wisconsin System and to maintaining its quality. I learned that her father was a professor, and that she began her career as a teacher before eventually going to law school. She assured me that she was committed as I was to tenure and shared governance. But she felt that she needed to explain to me, particularly since I had only moved to Wisconsin in 2010, how the state had gotten itself into a situation where its commitments to higher education were being pressured by the shift in the last century under the Thompson administration to more state support of K-12 education (and, she didn’t add, to “parental school-choice,” aka vouchers). Because of this, and other important commitments, available resources for the University System, she explained, were being stretched thinner than they once were.

But what also became clear was that she and I have radically different visions of what constitutes the well-being of the University of Wisconsin System and how it might be preserved and protected. Through the course of our conversation it became increasingly clear to me that in the current situation in Wisconsin we find ourselves in what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard called “a differend,” “a case of conflict between parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both. In the case of a differend, the parties cannot agree on a rule or criterion by which their dispute might be decided. A differend is opposed to a litigation – a dispute which can be equitably resolved because the parties involved can agree on a rule of judgement.” Despite all parties–Regents, chancellors, faculty, staff, students, and alumni–being committed to the well-being of the University of Wisconsin System, it seems impossible to agree upon a rule of judgment or any set of criteria by which to adjudicate our different visions of what that well-being would look like.

Regent Millner, like the Republican administration in Wisconsin and most of the UW System’s chancellors and Regents, is firmly committed to a vision of the university as job preparation–not just to first jobs, she wanted to assure me, but to teaching students to be able to learn and be “flexible” to respond to changes in technology and other conditions which would undoubtedly require them to retrain themselves for the workplace. She is also deeply committed to understanding the university as a business or corporation, which needs “to maintain our quality product” at an “affordable” price so that consumers (what I would call students) continue to purchase it.

Through the course of our conversation she simultaneously and contradictorily insisted both upon the realpolitik of Madison, where the Republicans are more strongly in control than they have ever been (“thanks to your recall”) and upon the belief that, despite what I may think, the world is not divided up between red and blue. She believes strongly that the public and the legislature are against the University system and the faculty. Yet she provided only anecdotal evidence in support of this belief, telling me that even her son, a small business owner, thought that faculty were the problem, that they didn’t work hard enough and had too much job security and too many state-funded benefits. We have all heard this kind of thing before. It’s what could be called “governing by anecdote.”

Regent Millner claimed that the revision of the Wisconsin Idea was a bad mistake. It was, she said, a “stupid idea” to try to change it. She told me that she was there in those discussions, and she assured me that it wasn’t the Governor’s idea (she didn’t say who came up with the idea, presumably Speaker Robin Vos or Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald).

Regarding the budget cuts (which she described as “draconian,” although I don’t know if that was her belief or if she was quoting me), she explained to me that there will be cuts, hopefully smaller ones, and there may not be a public authority. She was less clear about how tenure and shared governance, which she claims to support, will fare. She explained that she likes the vagueness of the public authority (and the Chapter 36 language about shared governance) because it allows it to be implemented differently on the ground for different institutions. In explaining this she used the language of “honoring” the differences among institutions. I pointed out that I was not interested in having those differences “honored” as an act of noblesse oblige, but rather determined by the faculty and staff of each institution. She claimed that this was what she meant.

But I could see the “differend” in operation in relation to several suggestions I made that Regent Millner refused to accept or even take up, as if she could not even entertain them as legitimate options. The first of these, which I made two or three times, was the claim that the budget crisis the state was faced with was a manufactured one, which had been generated by irresponsible tax cuts that the state was unable to afford. She simply refrained from addressing my suggestions that the crisis could be ameliorated by returning the state to the level of taxation that was in place when Walker was elected in 2010 and by accepting more than $300 million in federal money from the Affordable Care Act.

She also resisted my suggestion that the Regents speak out more vocally against the cuts and on behalf of faculty and the university. I asked her to imagine how powerful it would be if all of the Walker-appointed Regents joined together to make a strong statement against the cuts, for the protections of Chapter 36, and in favor of increasing revenue by returning to 2010 tax levels. She indicated that doing so would have only a negative effect in the legislature. “Actions speak louder than words,” she said her mother told her. “Talk is cheap.” I decided not to go into explaining speech-act theory, which argues strongly and persuasively that words are actions.

Regent Millner resisted as well the call in our open letter to Ray Cross for a two-year moratorium on the public authority, so that there could be a thorough, transparent, and broad-based study of the transition to a public authority. Despite acknowledging that the Walker budget did not even attempt to figure in the costs of a transition to “what we asked to do” in seeking a public authority, she dismissed the idea of such a study because it wouldn’t be the kind of “blue-ribbon” commission that originally created the system, but would be stacked with people who would do the bidding of the legislature.

But most troubling to me about the whole conversation, and what helped explain to me why it was that she wanted to talk with me in the first place, was the suggestion that I (or perhaps more specifically the question I had asked of Ray Cross) was responsible for derailing (or at least setting back) the excellent progress that Cross, the Regents, and others had been making in private meetings with members of the state Legislature. Indeed one of the first things she said in our conversation was that after “last Wednesday,” the day Ray Cross visited UW-Milwaukee, things at the legislature had been “inflamed.” And later on in our conversation she returned to the claim that things had been going along quite well in discussions with the legislature until last Wednesday.

Thus before we ended our conversation I told her directly that I was disturbed by her implication that somehow I was at fault for sabotaging the excellent progress that the Regents and President Cross had made behind closed doors, and that I was not willing to be made into a scapegoat for the loss of tenure and shared governance. When I pointed out that if indeed things had changed for the worse after “last Wednesday,” it wasn’t because I had asked Ray Cross if he would be prepared to pledge to resign if he failed to obtain a substantial reduction in the budget and preserve the academic protections written into Chapter 36, but because he answered in the affirmative that he would, she again refrained from responding.

Although our conversation ended cordially, her implication, and perhaps her motivation for “regentsplaining” me in the first place, seemed clear–to warn me, if only implicitly, that I ran the risk of further damaging the situation if I continued to speak out. I assured her that all of the power was on the side of the Regents and the Republican majority, that all I had was my voice, and that I was not prepared to be silenced. Although she ended by hoping we might have a chance to meet some time in person in Milwaukee, we did not make an appointment to do so.

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About rgrusin

I am an Academic Entrepreneur and Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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