Dr. Jerlando Jackson Shares His Perspective
By Brianna Rae
Last week, we published an op-ed titled ‘Concerned, but Committed (At least for Now): Why One UW Professor Says He is Not Jumping Ship Just Yet,’ written by Professor Jerlando F. L. Jackson prior to the UW system vote-of-no-confidence. This week, we are presenting a follow-up interview with Dr. Jackson in response to the vote-of-no-confidence, to discuss the future of UW and national public higher education. Dr. Jackson is the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education in the department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis as well as the Founding Director and Chief Research Scientist of Wisconsin’s Equity & Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB) in Wisconsin Center for Education Research, both in the School of Education at the UW-Madison.
Is what UW going through right now just normal growing pains for a university?
JJ: The main intent of the op-ed was to accentuate that the current events at UW-Madison has created an uncomfortable environment for many at the institution. This is NOT just a set of decisions or challenges that we are going to easily move beyond. We are dealing with decisions that fundamentally will change, potentially forever, what made UW-Madison a special environment for intellectual pursuits.
When tenure and shared governance was removed from state statute, it took with it an essential component of what made UW-Madison unique and distinctly different from its peers across the country and world. Faculty, staff, and students were emboldened by the statute-based protections to take on controversial subject matter. Researchers and scholars from across the world found it desirable that they would never have to worry about the work that they do – it was protected. In terms of shared governance, the state previously recognized that those who inhabit the walls of the academy understand best how to make decisions in the academy. Everyone, including students, had protected rights to ensure decisions related to policies that impacted them, did not occur without their voice and input.
Given the recent policy changes and the vote-of-no-confidence, what type of impact on the university will be seen, or has been seen already?
JJ: For quite some time, UW-Madison was viewed as a very liberal institution – and in one year, the view of the institution appears to have changed. For all the goodwill built over all those decades that made diverse individuals decide to come here, now they do not feel as comfortable. While it took decades to build a reputation as a liberal and welcoming campus, unfortunately, it does not take long for a reputation to be damaged.
It is saddening to hear from colleagues, potential students and staff that we are no longer perceived to be a place of tolerance, especially in light of the numerous recent reports of racial hatred on campus. Even though it’s certainly never been a utopia, this university has been a place that tolerated difference and diversity. Namely, being among the nation’s first institutions where Black students could come and faculty could work. We’ve also offered some of the first programs for Women’s Studies and African American Studies. For all the good work historically attributed to UW-Madison around race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status – currently we are no longer viewed or felt as a safe haven.
Competing institutions are strategically cherry-picking high-quality vulnerable institutions, and this is especially true for UW-Madison. They are calling. And individuals who would not normally take those calls in the past, are now jumping at the opportunity to have these discussions. It is also unfortunate that less competitive institutions are increasingly being viewed as more desirable landing spots than ever before.
And no, there’s not the mass exodus that’s been advertised, but by all reasonable measures of normal attrition and exit, there is a significant uptick with considerable departure from this institution that has been immediate and ongoing. What happens next will determine if the worst is behind us, or the worst is yet to come.
What is your understanding of the purpose or use for a vote-of-no-confidence? What are the implications of taking such a measure?
JJ: As someone who studies and teaching higher education leadership and decision-making, I interpret discussions or acts associated with a vote-of-no-confidence as very serious. A vote-of-no-confidence is not a willy-nilly or casual matter. We are discussing the vote-of-no-confidence as if it is a common occurrence, but these historically powerful statements of discontent for a campus leader may come around once in a 50-year period, if that.
Unfortunately, we are at a point where our campus, and others across the UW system feel that their only option left is a vote-of-no-confidence. What I attempted to point out in my op-ed is that on one hand it [vote-of-no-confidence] is significant, while on the other hand, these votes have not resulted in shortened timelines in position as in the past. Our case is a good example. If you read the language of the vote, it is actually a plea to work with UW-Madison — not a demand for the UW President or Board of Regents to resign their jobs.
You have said that right now, what’s happening at UW is a case study. Can you speak on the importance and rarity of world-class public education, and what the future may look like regarding the success of private versus public institutions of learning?
JJ: Yes, in many ways we are serving as a case study that the nation is monitoring. It is a case study as to what are the ingredients that constitute a world-class university and why private institutions have particular structural advantages that privilege them in creating these world-class learning spaces. With less than ten public institutions with this distinction, it is a reasonable question that all states that do not have one grapple with annually. What are the necessary ingredients? What type of flexibilities are needed to compete with private institutions, and what resources are required to be competitive in an employment market largely driven by private school salaries?
As early as 1900, UW-Madison has been in the top five for public universities, and has remained close to it ever since. Whether by serendipity or design, the state of Wisconsin invested in and cultivated a world-class public institution. The states that do not have a world-class public university, but see the statewide value of having one, are certainly doing all that they can to invest in their flagship institution.
The unfortunate reality is that most states have a really good state flagship institution that meets the general needs of the state and region, but have not created an institution that competes nationally with top-tier private institutions, let alone globally as one of the best institutions in the world. At some point, the level of divestment and structural restrictions will reach a tipping point that will compromise UW-Madison’s world-class status. We should certainly use the current set of events as a wakeup call to be better articulate the distinction and value of a world-class public institution to the state.
This being an important case study in regards to the state and direction of national public higher education, what are some of the implications that you see from this already?
JJ: The developments at UW-Madison will shed light on several important questions regarding public higher education. Under what conditions do you alter policies that would significantly impact institutional culture? Are world-class public institutions valued state assets? Are very good state flagship institutions adequate enough to meet the employment and economic needs of the state and region? Should world-class education reside primarily with private institutions?
In many ways, other states will look to us to see how the UW-Madison story unfolds to inform how they handle decisions about their state flagship. Perhaps the recent decision by the Board of Trustees for the University of Delaware to shift decision-making authority away from the Faculty Senate to the Provost shows that the developments surrounding the UW Board of Regents has a broader reach than expected.