At the end of this summer I will step down from my position as director of the Center for 21st Century Studies to become a full-time professor at UWM. For both personal and professional reasons I have been considering this move for more than a year. Indeed last spring I was on the verge of deciding to end my directorship. But a series of intellectually rewarding C21-related events–the Anthropocene Feminism conference; the annual conference of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes in Hong Kong; an eye-opening three-day visit by a contingent of Consortium advisory board members to universities in Shenzhen and Guangdong; an extraordinary group of C21 fellows for this past year’s seminars–persuaded me that the directorship of the Center was too good a gig to give up. Sadly the intensified assault on higher education in Wisconsin over the past four months (by Republican politicians as well as UWM and University System administrators) has proved to be the tipping point to convince me that this is no longer the case.
In 2010 when I was hired to direct C21, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was still deeply committed to supporting research and scholarship in the humanities, even research that did not directly generate revenue. The Center for 21st Century Studies had a robust staff and ongoing budgetary lines to provide annual support for seven internal fellows, one UW System fellow, and a post-doc, all of whom met in biweekly seminars along with the director, deputy director, and assistant director. The Center also had the funding to bring in a half-dozen or so invited speakers each semester and to stage an annual conference, out of which a book of essays would customarily be published, the latest of which is our Minnesota Press volume on The Nonhuman Turn.
On a campus where academic departments have very little money to bring in their own speakers and where opportunities for release time to work on one’s scholarship were scarce, the Center has played a crucial role in fostering research and creating an intellectual life in the humanities and humanistic social sciences on campus. For the past five years I am proud of the way we have done just that, and even perhaps a little more. I am especially proud of our four annual spring conferences–The Nonhuman Turn (2012), The Dark Side of the Digital (2013), Anthropocene Feminism (2014), and After Extinction (2015)–which have helped shape interdisciplinary scholarly discourse in the humanities not only at UWM but nationally and internationally.
Unfortunately it has become apparent that in the current budgetary climate the UW-Milwaukee administration is no longer willing or able to provide the same level of support for humanities scholarship that it had when I was hired in 2010. Earlier this semester C21 was forced to cancel its national search for a post-doctoral fellow when our Provost withdrew his support for that position. Last month I was invited via Outlook to a meeting with the Dean of Letters and Science and interim VP for Research, at which I was handed a revised budget for the coming year, which represented a roughly 33% cut in our support for fellows, programming, and general operating expenses. It is highly unlikely that these cuts will be restored in the foreseeable future.
The result of these cuts was not trivial: they reduced our internal UWM fellows from seven to five (resulting in the embarrassing situation of the L&S Dean having to rescind the Center’s offer to two of next year’s fellows); cut our graduate student assistants from two to one; and reduced funding for invited speakers, our annual conference, and everything else by one-third. On top of this severe cut the Center has not been given (and is unlikely to receive) permission to replace its full-time deputy director, who has taken a similar position at the humanities center in Madison, where she lives. In addition to reducing the college’s salary support for the Center’s administrative staff by nearly 40%, cutting the deputy director eliminates the Center’s highest-ranked full-time employee, the person responsible not only for administering the Center but also for working closely with the director in setting C21’s intellectual and programmatic agenda.
As damaging as these cuts are to the Center’s future prospects, they would not have led me to step down as director if I had not already been seriously considering it. Beginning in 1993, when I became director of undergraduate studies in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech, I have spent 18 of the past 22 years in administrative positions, including two stints as department chair (three years at Georgia Tech and seven at Wayne State) and now five years as director of C21. In that time I have rarely had the luxury of a summer off for research and revitalization–two of those four summers off involved moving jobs and cities–from Atlanta to Detroit in 2001 and from Detroit to Milwaukee in 2010. In 2016-17 I will be eligible for the first sabbatical of my more than 30-year career as a faculty member. After 18 years helping to administer two large departments and running a substantive interdisciplinary humanities center, I am ready to turn the bulk of my energy and imagination to supporting my own teaching and research.
For the time being C21 will continue with a new director, chosen from among our talented, if dramatically underpaid, humanities faculty. I look forward to supporting the new director as I can and to seeing how the Center evolves in response to the new budgetary landscape in which we are living. My time as director has been extraordinarily rewarding. I have enjoyed mentoring my junior colleagues and creating a collegial and welcoming intellectual atmosphere for new kinds of thinking and dialogue. As I move forward into the last decade or so of my career, I hope to be able to continue doing so by other, less formally institutional means–both for my colleagues and for myself. I leave the directorship of the Center for 21st Century Studies with some sadness but no regrets. And I look forward to providing myself with the kind of time and space to think and write that the Center has been offering UWM faculty and visiting fellows for more than forty years.