During a botched re-opening, those with the most power on campus have repeatedly chosen profits over people.
Photo by Kenechi Unachukwu.
On August 22, members of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) at UW–Madison marched to Chancellor Becky Blank’s house. The house, a brick behemoth housing UW–Madison chancellors since 1924, was renovated in 2008 to the tune of $2.4 million. Many of the teaching, research, and project assistants now standing outside had not received a paycheck since June. In the fading light, one began reading their will.
Throughout the pandemic, university administrators have treated concerns raised by workers as overblown. They have insisted that UW–Madison’s COVID-19 testing procedures are “second to none,” despite testing only being required for students living in university housing. They have claimed to speak for the vast majority of students, despite an open records request revealing that administrators never gathered enough data on student preferences to constitute any sort of majority. They have emphasized that there is “no evidence” of transmission in classroom settings, despite contact tracers not even attempting to collect such evidence because the classroom is not considered a site of contact.
During my graduate training at UW–Madison, I was taught that cooking data is a recipe for getting kicked out of the profession. Perhaps massaging the narrative is only reserved for those with more power. Perhaps it is wishful thinking. When the university moved to online-only instruction just a week into the semester, after county officials pleaded with administrators to put community safety first, Chancellor Blank wrote that this “was not how we envisioned the start of the academic year.” I too have an imagination, but I was taught that it did not constitute evidence, especially when lives were at stake. I wonder how long it’s been since any university administrator has been in the sort of classrooms into which they are forcing their students and workers.
As a graduate worker, I write this from a place of immense privilege. My income has remained secure throughout the pandemic, thanks to a year-long research assistantship and guarantees from my department going forward. I am a U.S. citizen, so my student status was never threatened. Unlike custodial, dining services, and building trades workers, I am not required to be on campus, and I do not face a choice between risking my health and getting paid. The TAA (UW–Madison’s grad student union, of which I’m an active member), University Labor Council (ULC), and the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) have repeatedly called for job security for all university employees during the pandemic and a livable $15 wage for hourly workers, with no response. Meanwhile, the UW System decided to pay former chancellor Ray Cross around $125,000 over three months—or what a full-time minimum-wage worker would make in 8 years and 4 months with no days off.
And so I also write from a place of anger. This may read like a deluge, indictment after indictment of the university’s leadership without any overarching message. The deluge is the message. The consistency is the takeaway. My phone flashes with an email notification, and I learn that a university purportedly re-committed to racial justice after the summer uprisings is sending the police to students’ homes. I talk to an activist friend, and I learn that the university has formed a seven-person public health team and a 39–person marketing team. I turn on the news and see that we’re playing football again as cases climb past 2,500. The reckless decisions, the repeated choices of profits over people, are relentless.
Certainly dictates are coming from on high: the Board of Regents has implied that re-opening is courageous, and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature would love to use the pandemic as an excuse to further decimate the UW system while pretending that everything is fine. Years of state and federal cuts to higher education have made universities far too dependent on student tuition and room and board fees. Not every decision is local, nor localized to the dumpster fire of 2020. But each and every node is indeed a decision. The times are dire, and they require bold decisions where those with power use that power for the betterment of those with less. They require real leadership. The pandemic has taught me that we have none.
Real leaders do not create a plan that places all responsibility for public safety on the shoulders of 18-year-olds. Real leaders do not shift blame onto students when their 39-person marketing team somehow fails to mention that re-opening campus sends a message to all students in town that everything is fine and life can continue more or less as planned. Real leaders do not maintain relationships with the police when Black and brown communities are already disproportionately harmed by university decisions. Real leaders do not pass the buck to students and faculty to lobby governments for increased higher education funding. Real leaders do not remain ensconced in their homes while workers making less in a year than they will make in a month gather outside to talk of death and loss.
Leaders have power. Real leaders use that power to uplift those who have less. To try the university’s preferred research method on for size, I can envision a fall semester where university leaders pooled their power to demand more government funding, shifted budgets to ensure dignity for every member of the campus community, and stood in radical solidarity with students and workers. Unfortunately, imagination works about as well here as it did for the re-opening. As UW–Madison heads into the second week of a 14–day move online, our administrators have left us with only willful ignorance of reality, grotesque acts of disrespect, and a complete abdication of responsibility for the safety of our community.
Instead of a leader, we have a chancellor who says she would make the decision to re-open all over again. Instead of an answer to the question of how many deaths the university would find acceptable, we have silence. The silence is the message.