Dear UW-Madison: Stop spamming me about the new chancellor

A tiresome spectacle by and for academic gentry.
A stained-glass window depicts an ivory tower, surrounded with colorful patterns in blue, red, white, and gold.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A tiresome spectacle by and for academic gentry.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

The summer edition of UW-Madison’s magazine, On Wisconsin, arrived in my mailbox the first week in June. On the cover is a photo of the new chancellor at her investiture ceremony: an attractive white woman with curly red hair. She is donned in full academic regalia and clasps her hands over her heart in what appears to be a genuine gesture of gratitude, tears welling in her eyes. 

The magazine is the most recent communique in what has been a non-stop barrage on my email and mailbox over the last year touting the achievements of the university’s new leader: announcement after announcement about the party of all ivory tower parties, the investiture. Then, after no more than a few months in Madison, I saw a notice that she was named on BizTime’s list of top business leaders in the state. If you have any affiliation with the university, I’m sure you’ve noticed these same gushing, glowing messages.

I can forgive the university for boosterism in its own publications, and, to be clear, I do not have anything against the new chancellor, Jennifer Mnookin, as a person, nor do I dispute her capabilities. However, a nagging thought bothers me: why does the school celebrate a bureaucrat in this way? And who’s the audience for such formalities? 

Full disclosure: I’m a former employee of the University of Wisconsin, and I’ve taught in higher education for the last 10 years. As a low-level employee at UW-Madison, I didn’t make strategic decisions. I didn’t report to people who made strategic decisions. I just taught students, lots of them. And from this vantage point, it’s clear to me that neither me nor my former students are the audience of such academic performances.

In trying to understand the purpose and audience of the investiture ceremony and the generalized glee around the hiring of a new university chancellor, I’ve noticed two things. First, these celebrations exalt the ivory tower as an elite institution and they do so for an audience of high-level administrators and other academic gentry. 

Second, these ceremonies are shrouded in an aura of vague educational do-good-ery and school spirit. And this aura clouds the fact that they do nothing to actually address the real problems the university faces or curb the growing anti-intellectual movement and attacks on higher education from the right.

It becomes clear that the university is putting on a show for other elite bureaucrats. Filling seats at the investiture ceremony were past chancellors, regents, public officials, alongside leaders of other universities across the country. One puff piece described the investiture in hallowed terms, calling it “one of the oldest traditions in academia.” You can’t win this reader’s approval with that kind of statement. It’s precisely the navel-gazing behavior of the ivory tower that should garner ire, no matter your political affiliation. 

It’s hard for me to have the patience for shows of elitism like the investiture ceremony when I also know that top administrators and top faculty received massive raises during the pandemic and since. The new chancellor walked in the door making nearly $150,000 more than her predecessor and then received a 2% (i.e. $15,000) raise this year.

Moreover, celebrating an individual at the top reinforces the shiny allure of educational meritocracy. But one of the things I learned from my time working in higher education is that employees—staff or faculty—do not rise in the ranks. They shuffle and transfer laterally through positions. Professorships are filled by people whose parents likely earned PhDs, a socioeconomic reality that puts them out of touch with the students they serve. Instead their privilege aligns them with other administrative elites. There’s no meritocracy here (or anywhere). 

The investiture also distracts from the real problems the university faces: rising cost of attendance, increasing food insecurity for students, experiences of unbelonging for students of color at a predominately white institution, unmet demands for equity by Black students, and more. 

And there are very real challenges to UW-Madison from the right: threats to cut even more state funding that go hand in hand with threats to eliminate DEI initiatives coming (unsurprisingly and unoriginally) from Robin Vos. We can’t expect a chancellor to solve the political threats the UW System faces from the Republican-controlled legislature. Nor should we. But dressing people up in puffy robes won’t help.

In a speech that could make only a Boomer beam, the new chancellor gestured vaguely to the future, one full of generic innovations, and generic compassions. I can’t imagine curiosity, collaboration, and compassion being offered from the obscure heights of university administration. Its bureaucratic structure isn’t built to foster those lofty and empty ideals. The change will come from students and workers, as it always has.

Who has power and what are they doing with it?

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