After the dream, nightmare

July 27, 2001

Harvey J. Kaye was expecting more cash to fund reforms at his university. Then the economy went sour and people in key positions began to leave

Back in 1999, I proffered the makings of a tale of redemption and triumph at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. But the gods of academe apparently wanted a tragicomedy.

The year 2000 opened so auspiciously. The university seemed poised to secure a desperately needed several million-dollar rise in its operating budget. For two years, faculty, staff, students and administrators had pursued the development of a new "UWGB learning initiative". We had hoped thereby to obtain the resources necessary to address our outrageously high student-to-faculty ratio and reinvigorate our once lively and much admired but now enervated academic life.

In late 1998, I had publicly challenged our energetic chancellor, Mark Perkins, to do something about our impoverished academic budget and student learning experience. He responded by commissioning a task force headed by the provost, Howard Cohen, to come up with a plan that we could present to the University of Wisconsin System (a model suggested for British higher education) and the board of regents (the state governing board of the system). If the system and the regents approved our plan, they would include the funds in their next biennial budget request to the state.

We laboured hard and imaginatively. Based on the proposition that we wanted to "create smart, articulate and engaged citizens and professional practitioners", the task force developed a "compelling idea" and a roster of possible endeavours. A follow-up committee drafted a full-scale plan. University governance bodies approved and chancellor Perkins dedicated himself to lobbying UW System and the regents.

Things looked truly promising. We grew more and more confident that our efforts would be rewarded. System administration declared its support for our plan and our petition for additional operating dollars. Though it did not agree that we should receive all of the money in the upcoming biennium (2001-03), it did agree to a two-biennia scheme, and it even increased the amount we should receive. We sensed victory when the regents endorsed our project and made it one of their primary initiatives.

We started to talk seriously about what we would do first if we actually got the money. We had planned to create a new programme of first-year seminars, develop a more critical system for advising students and assessing their work, and expand community and internship experiences.

Though most of the new hirings in the first biennium were to be non-teaching staff appointments, we would eventually increase faculty numbers by almost 30 per cent, allowing us to improve on workload, class size and advising problems dramatically. We discussed such things as how we might distribute the new teaching positions among departments, how we might organise the freshman seminars, and how we might encourage students to "learn by teaching". The process had clearly raised expectations.

We still faced the hurdle of getting into the governor's official budget proposal and surviving the ensuing legislative process. But as we had overcome what we had thought to be the major obstacle, the UW System and the regents, we expected to prevail.

We were sadly mistaken. Naively or stupidly, we had failed completely to foresee or consider the possibility of a sudden economic downturn and state fiscal crisis. In January, Wisconsin's then governor was appointed secretary of health and human services in the new Bush administration. Escaping to Washington DC, he left it to his successor, Lt. Governor Scott McCallum, to reveal - and try to deal with - an impending massive budget deficit. And what do you think the new Republican governor cut out of the UW System request? You guessed it: the UWGB initiative.

Next, even before we could begin campaigning to get back into the budget, chancellor Perkins announced that he had accepted a job offer at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. I was shocked. The captain is supposed to be last off a sinking ship. Still, Mr Perkins had some issues to deal with before departing. In April, a number of female staff went public with their claims that the chancellor and provost had treated them in a gender-biased fashion. The local press jumped on it. Several female administrators came to their superiors' defence. I had envisaged our garnering attention for our learning experience initiative, not stuff such as this.

Then, in May, provost Cohen - who stood in line to be named interim chancellor (and, quite possibly, chancellor) - announced that he had accepted an appointment as head of Purdue University-Calumet.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. A year ago the dean of arts and sciences retired early and the dean of professional studies took a position elsewhere (both former deans are women).

Thus, we have had two interim deans, one of whom has just retired. State officials have spurned us. Administrative leaders have abandoned us. I really believed that we stood on the verge of great things and that once again we would be able to provide our students with the kind of critical education they deserve and we need them to get.

Not only will we not have the resources to make things right. Making matters worse, we will all be expending valuable time and energy on "search and screen committees" looking for a new chancellor, a new provost, and a couple of new deans.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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