An open letter to Steve Nass

A UW-Madison alum responds to Wisconsin’s most tiresome opponent of higher education.

A UW-Madison alum responds to Wisconsin’s most tiresome opponent of higher education.


Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

“When there’s a problem, they try to ignore it. They don’t want to talk about it. They go kicking and screaming, instead of recognizing there’s a problem.”

—Steve Nass, speaking to Vikki Kratz in Isthmus, Sept. 2007Isthmus, Sept. 2007

Dear State Senator Stephen L. Nass (R-Whitewater),

My name is Michael Penn II. I’m sure we’ve never met, so allow me to say hello. As an alumnus of UW-Madison, I’m no stranger to the persistent, everlasting struggle for accountability with the people I’ve trusted to mold my mind, and whom we’re trusting to mold the minds of our peers and the children who come after us. We’re engaged in the same struggle—different perspectives, indeed, but we share the desire to see our university flourish in producing brilliant minds with brilliant ideas to shape our world throughout the test of time.

Recently, you made headlines by criticizing UW-Madison’s voluntary Men’s Project seminar, under the presumption that its creators and facilitators intend to supersede, if not altogether replace, the parents of male-identified UW students in raising their boys to manhood. A month earlier, you launched a political pushback against Professor Damon Sajnani’s course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” threatening to pull state funding if the course and its professor persist in threatening your racial identity. In a climate where UW-Madison administration continues to wrestle with the implications of several racially charged incidents and sexual assaults—feeding into the national dialogue around sexual violence on college campuses and the climate for students of color at predominantly white institutions—threatening fiscal penalties to a system budget that’s already lost over hundreds of millions of dollars in state support appears egregious at best.

As you frame it, your goal for overseeing the UW System comes off as noble: to provide “parents and taxpayers with a clear understanding of the performance by both students and educators.” While I agree that this understanding is necessary, I take extreme issue with your approach. You’ve spent more than a decade using your legislative power to unilaterally threaten and terrorize the UW in matters that do not call for such force. And I assure you: The very divisions you’ve observed—the threats to free speech and thought you claim exist in the campus culture—have only grown deeper because of your words.

After looking deeper into your work, I’m more saddened than surprised. Your strategy around the politics of higher-education are all-too familiar, and appear to be the only thing in your playbook that works to your liking. It’s the very tactic that earned you national attention this past July, when you threatened funding over a sociology assignment on gay sex from Professor Jason Nolen. I can recall the Snapchat incident at UW-Whitewater in February of last year, where two white students with black facial masks stirred a dialogue around racially-charged images. You characterized Chancellor Beverly Kopper’s urgent response to the issue as an overreaction, and accused her administration of placing “political correctness”—that most familiar right-wing boogeyman—over common sense.

A month prior to that, you flung a similar accusation at UW System President Ray Cross after he acknowledged that the UW has a long road ahead in addressing the issues students that, faculty, and staff of color experience across the System. You said Cross’ move was another blow to the UW’s credibility and another wedge driven deeper into the statewide divide. I can mention your 2004 push to fire Kevin Barrett for his beliefs on the U.S. government’s involvement in 9/11, your 2005 efforts for a Faculty Code of Conduct to smother “anti-American sentiment,” the 2007 push for a Student Bill of Rights to protect conservative students (the only real victims on campus, in the right-wing imagination) and their opinions, and your 2010 tirade against “liberal extremists” who hate automobiles because they want bike boxes all over Madison. By now, I’m drowning in examples.

Senator Nass, with years of evidence and repetition, how can you expect your constituents to respond to your calls for “accountability” when your only play is persistent grandstanding against any and all who oppose you? How can you, in good conscience, claim to represent the people of Wisconsin, or even your district, when you’ve stopped at nothing to effectively target anyone whose narrative, body, and very existence are not subservient to straight, white, conservative men?


I’m the man you so clearly fear: one who’s committing himself to working for a safer, better world for everyone around him. You’ve never met me, but you’ve heard from plenty of people just like me: no matter the politics or the differences, it’s high time to remember you’re servicing us as well.

As an alumnus whose identity and presentation of such could never satisfy your guidelines, I implore you to take the very advice you’ve offered to your opposition several times over your tenure in the legislature: When something appears in the UW to challenge your worldview, don’t resort to the kick of your press release and the scream of your threats to pull another dollar from our fractured budget. If you truly thirst for productive discourse and effective preparation, humble yourself and quit working against those very goals.

You’ve made many an effort to destroy the people you’re supposed to be serving, furthering tattering Wisconsin’s reputation and widening the political divide you’ve lamented in your inflammatory statements. I’m writing you to remind you that this doesn’t have to be your choice, that reason and common sense shouldn’t remain beyond your reach.

It’s time to hold true to your word. I assure you that this won’t be the last time you hear from people like me.


Michael Penn II, B.A. Journalism-Reporting

University of Wisconsin-Madison, May 2015

5th Cohort, First Wave Urban Arts Learning Community

Editor’s note: This article initially cited the wrong author for the Isthmus article linked at the top. The byline has been corrected.

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