Director's Column: Triage

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Director’s Column: Triage

Normally, I would dedicate this column to the array of projects we’re at work on right now. For example, our Wisconsin Englishes Project is in the middle of a large set of lectures around the state, funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council. We are about to launch a Norwegian American Folk Music Archives project with the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum. And of course this newsletter is dedicated to such things.

But here at our home institution, the University of Wisconsin, in meetings, conversations in the hallway and over coffee, outreach projects, teaching and research are just not what most people are thinking about. I’m talking to lots of people from every corner of campus these days and the dominant topic is this: We are witnessing the destruction of one of the great public universities in the United States right now. In a variety of settings with entirely independent sets of people over the last weeks about planning and allocating resources, the same attitude has been assumed or adopted without discussion: We are no longer operating in the normal manner, but are in triage mode. To be clear, I mean that word, which I now hear constantly on campus, in sense 1a of Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary:

Dictionary definition of Triage

That is, we are spending our time trying to save what we can institutionally. Our Center is funded not by the state but by grants, a small endowment we’ve built with outside grants, and donations. That’s very rare for the kind of work we do, of course, and a point of pride that we’re able to bring in enough outside money to have built and now to maintain our operation. Jim Leary, Ruth Olson and I used to joke that there was a good side to this situation: The University could not cut our funding. It turns out now, though, that as the University of Wisconsin –Madison staggers toward ruin, we are vulnerable.

Consider one example: Most of the nitty-gritty work that gets done is done here and across campus by graduate students, who earn their way (barely, or partially) by working as Project Assistants, known as PAs. The University last year imposed a flat $4,000 per semester ‘tuition remission’ charge for all PAs. That has had a devastating effect on our ability to hire students, and for students to afford to come here. (Skyrocketing tuition is obviously limiting access to the UW for many qualified people already, but that’s another issue.) I personally am unable to fund a PA position this year directly due to this, and know plenty of other faculty in the same situation, including our CSUMC colleague Janet Gilmore, who leads our regional folklore archiving initiative.

Although I’ve avoided the word until today, triage is an apt word: We are involved in a battle for our existence. This has become a battle for our existence on a whole set of levels. You can see details of the effects of the funding crisis on the website of the Coalition for Affordable Public Education, More importantly, you can learn what you can do to help. We’ll win this battle, but it’s not going to be easy.



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