The presidential election of 2016 and the values of a public research university

I work at a large, highly selective, highly ranked, and highly productive public research university in the state of Wisconsin, and my job is to serve that university, its students, and its constituents as a researcher, teacher, and administrator.  Put simply, I love my job, even though it is the most difficult one I’ve ever had.  I am thankful every day for the chance to help advance the challenging, imaginative, important, and impactful work of all my faculty, staff, and student colleagues.

At my university, just as in most education settings around the nation, we’ve all been closely engaged in the presidential election over the past year.  Now that the result is known, I’m certain that my colleagues who study politics, social movements, media, and demographics will be working hard to figure out why so many different institutions — from polling agencies to seasoned journalists to prediction markets — were so wrong about the actual outcome.  But I realized this morning that I am filtering my own reactions to the election through a slightly different lens: that of my core scholarship, instruction, and service role as a public research university professor.  I have my own partisan opinions on the election result, of course, just like every voter — but those are not what I am pondering  here.  I find myself more concerned about an issue that I think operates on a level apart from that of party affiliation — an issue that should concern Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Greens, all the same.

I am concerned that the result of yesterday’s presidential election represents a direct challenge to the core values that are necessary to the very existence of a public research university.  Based on the winner’s long record of public statements, professional actions, and private behaviors, it appears that we have elected a president who models a set of values that are wholly incompatible with those of higher education.  After all, this was a candidate who advocated for discrimination on the basis of religion; who impugned the integrity of a public official based on family heritage; who mocked a professional with a disability; who refused to meet the most basic of transparency expectations; who espoused conspiracy theories that run directly counter to broad expert consensus; who repeatedly made assertions that were documented as completely false by multiple, reputable news organizations; who bragged about intimidating protestors and suppressing votes; who stereotyped whole communities of color as dysfunctional and desperate; and who dismissed his own admissions of workplace sexual harassment and assault as just “talk.”

These incidents and others, each widely reported, will not come as any surprise to readers who have been following the election season closely.  (Indeed, many of those who voted for this candidate simultaneously expressed profound concern about such incidents.)  While one could build a list of complaints about any candidate from any party, the examples above concern me so much because they seem to reveal core values that dismiss or demean the importance of things like knowledge expertise, basic civility, democratic norms, and respect for diversity.  

But my own concern resonates even stronger this morning because of the fact that my home state of Wisconsin — whose residents and organizations have supported and benefitted from our wonderful public research university through tumultuous social, economic, cultural, and political changes for more than 150 years — played such a key part in the path to victory for the winning candidate.  I can’t help wondering if this is an implicit endorsement by my state, not only of a particular political party, or a particular presidential candidate, but also of the particular examples above — and the values that seem to underpin them.

As part of my own reckoning with these election results, I would like to try to articulate what some of the core values of a successful and responsible non-profit, public-interest, higher education institution should be — values in direct contradiction to those seemingly demonstrated again and again by the winning presidential candidate over the course of the past year.  Here are the four key values which I believe remain crucial to the success of higher education in Wisconsin and the world — and which I fear might now be under greater challenge as a result of this election:

We value the careful, collective, and evidence-based production, testing, and circulation of knowledge in the public interest.  We value imaginative and responsible research investigation, careful and cooperative peer review, clear and accessible presentation of research findings, challenging and inspiring teaching and mentoring, and open public engagement with the implications and consequences of the knowledge that we create and disseminate.  We do not dismiss a global consensus about peer-reviewed and professionally replicated scientific knowledge as a conspiracy theory merely because we would prefer not to reckon with the implications of that knowledge; similarly, we do not offer up wishful thinking, evidence-free assurances, unexamined assumptions or conspiracy theories as adequate knowledge upon which to base policy and action.  Our arguments depend on evidence, our theories are subject to testing, and our conclusions always remain open to revision if warranted.

We value civility, respect, empathy, and humility in both professional dealings and public debates.  We know that in order to persuade, we must first listen, and that to achieve progress, we must first expect compromise.  We try hard to assume the best of intentions in our opposition, and to find shared understanding and experience from which to begin any negotiation, even in the most polarizing of disputes.  We enthusiastically engage with a diverse information and media infrastructure, made up of both for-profit and non-profit institutions, in order to support a robust marketplace of ideas.  This does not mean that we shy away from controversial issues or critical stances; challenging orthodoxy, whether through art or science, is a crucial part of the knowledge production process.  But  we nurture an environment of both working and learning where faculty, staff, and students alike can feel safe to engage with risky and controversial ideas.

We value broad-based democratic engagement, participation, and transparency in decision-making.  A research university is a collective enterprise built on shared governance.  We subject our faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions to peer review and faculty vote as well as to administrative oversight.  We collaboratively determine the arrangement of our disciplines, we peer-monitor our research conduct, and we jointly shape our teaching curricula through regular faculty and staff discussion, debate, and vote.  We seek out the input and engagement of the many diverse communities that our students and stakeholders call home, across Wisconsin and the world.  And where administrative leadership is necessary for clear and accountable decisions on budget priorities and resource allocation, we value both transparency and broad consultation in that decision process.

We value the participation and cooperation of people from diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and identities in service of better understanding, increased creativity, and more effective problem-solving.  We know that the university gains its power from the juxtaposition and interaction of different ways of knowing — from the arts and humanities to the physical, natural and social sciences — and from the combined and coordinated effort of people whose personal histories, individual identities, unique talents, philosophical beliefs, and professional goals span the range of human experience.  We know that it is not enough to merely attract and retain a diverse constituency of faculty, staff, and students, but that we must work hard, every day, to nurture and maintain the norms of open-mindedness and empathy, imagination and curiosity, civility and respect that enable effective engagement and cooperation between the most disparate of partners.  And we know that we still have much work to do to ensure that our diversity of persons and perspectives here at the university fully encompasses that of our state, our nation, and our world.

There is a saying that “Elections have consequences.”  As a citizen fortunate enough to live within one of the world’s greatest democratic experiments in history, I absolutely accept those consequences, and I am prepared to personally respond to this election through my own private choices and partisan activism.  But education has consequences as well, and in my professional and public role as a steward of our higher education legacy here in Wisconsin, I feel a responsibility at this historic moment to articulate and defend the values that I believe are essential to the survival of that educational legacy.  I  hope that regardless of partisan affiliation or political preference, our stakeholders across Wisconsin and the world will work to help us uphold our values of evidence-based and open-minded knowledge production, civil and critical discourse, democratic governance and engagement, and excellence through multifaceted diversity.  To me, such values define the Wisconsin Idea — and they are worth working for every day, regardless of any momentary political victory or setback.

For more on the core values of my university, see the following resources: 

 

Ten Things to Ponder after you are Appointed as an Associate Dean

Back in spring 2013, after I had served for about four years as a department chair for the School of Journalism & Mass Communication here at UW-Madison, I posted a blog entry entitled “Ten Things to Ponder after you are Elected Department Chair” that I hoped would “provide current and future colleagues in the same spot with some useful starting points for thinking through their own goals and responsibilities as they shift from a life of ‘research, teaching and service’ to the equally complicated and contradictory world of ‘administration.’”

Well, two years ago I was appointed as the associate dean for social sciences in the College of Letters & Science here at UW-Madison.  I thought it might be interesting to go through the same top-ten exercise with my current job, in light of two tumultuous years of post-recession budget cuts, partisan politics around tenure and the Wisconsin Idea, and public debates over the purpose and value of a college degree in the twenty-first century.  So here is my gently updated list:

Ten Things to Ponder after you are Appointed as an Associate Dean.

10. Remember to refer to yourself as having been “appointed” as an associate dean, to remind yourself (and your colleagues) that you serve at the pleasure of the dean and are subject to dismissal from this position at any time if you fail to do your job with accuracy, professionalism, and integrity — or if you decide that you can no longer support your dean’s vision for your college.

9. Be clear that your administrative role is not simply to allocate resources among the departments and programs in your division, but also to mitigate the inevitable effects of differing levels of power and resources among those units — especially recognizing that there is no single and universal metric of productivity or impact that can be applied to all of your diverse units fairly and consistently.  (This is all the more important to remember in tight budget years when there are precious few resources to allocate — or when resources are being eliminated.)

8. Be prepared to work collaboratively across your departments and programs, across your college’s broad divisions, and even across other schools and colleges in your university, in partnership with your fellow associate deans, assistant deans, and other mid-level administrators of all sorts.  (After all, most of what a top public research university ends up doing is not easily divided into arbitrary disciplinary or organizational boxes.)

7. Be content with not knowing the answer to every question; instead, cultivate the trust and cooperation of your fellow administrative staff across the university so that you are able to quickly find the answers or assemble the expertise to deal with whatever issues may arise.  (Knowing how to do an effective Google search of your university’s policy documents helps too.)

6. Understand that nobody else in your college sees the same broad range of departmental and program practices from your division as you do, and take every opportunity to promote and share the best of those practices widely to allow for organizational learning and collaboration.  (And if you never learn a better way of doing something from one of your units, you’re probably not paying close enough attention.)

5. Though you will be pained by both, keep in mind the profound difference between making a mistake — after which you should admit your error, express regret, and ask forgiveness — and suffering a defeat — after which you should understand the reasons for your setback, reaffirm your principles, and find a way to do better next time.  (And if you never push the boundaries of your authority and expertise as a mid-level manager, even at the risk of a gentle rebuke from your dean, you are probably being a bit too careful.)

4. Be aware that while your department chairs or directors must constantly perform “on stage” to communicate their units’ activities, missions, and values to a broad a range of stakeholders like faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, employers, and politicians, an associate dean’s communication takes place largely “backstage” to a narrower set of professional peers. (In other words, expect to let your social media accounts lie fallow for awhile.)

3. Consider that your job as an associate dean is not simply to make your departments and programs happy — nor is it to make your dean and fellow administrators happy.  Rather, your job is to provide your most careful, experienced, and evidence-based advice and assistance on a wide range of issues — with respect to both long-term strategic goals and short-term crisis intervention — to balance the often competing interests of all of those stakeholders in service of the broad institutional mission.  (This will inevitably involve saying “No” sometimes to your department chairs and program directors, and even to your dean, so always be ready to defend and explain your arguments and decisions.)

2. Remember to seek out your fellow associate and assistant deans and talk with them regularly (especially in informal settings over stimulating beverages) because you will unfortunately find it difficult to talk with your own faculty colleagues, as well as the department chairs and program directors under your stewardship, in a way that allows them (and you) to even momentarily forget about your distinctive administrative, personnel, fiduciary, and leadership roles.

1. Never forget that not only did you willingly agree to do this job, but also that you are undoubtedly learning a great deal about your state, your university, your college, your division, your departments, and yourself with every day that you survive it.  (And, with any luck, you are doing some good.)

Search the UW course guide for “taking initiative” and enroll in INTER-LS 210 in Fall 2015!

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On teaching an interdisciplinary career course

Here’s a question for my post-graduate readers: Looking back on the story of your own career, what do you wish that you had known during your college years about yourself, about your education, or about the world of work that awaited you upon graduation?

career-cartoon-smallThat question is precisely what I’ll be trying to explore with over 250 undergraduate students this semester, as the faculty member in charge of the College of Letters and Science’s newest one-credit course: INTER-LS 210, “Taking Initiative.”  Better known as “the L&S second-year career course,” the idea is to introduce students not only to the instrumental skills of the job search (preparing a resume, writing a cover letter, and developing an online persona, for example), but also to the conceptual knowledge background of high-skill labor markets, the critical reflection practices of discovering one’s strengths and goals, the information evaluation processes of researching occupations and majors, and the expert resources available across the UW-Madison campus — all of which are necessary to help students to turn a simple “job hunt” into a comprehensive “academic and career development plan.”

I approach this course knowing well that my own thirty-year academic and career development path since first starting my undergraduate education in 1985 was anything but predictable.  My first college degree, taken at a public research university much like the one where I work now, was in computer science.  Of course, at the time I didn’t know that would be my “first” degree; it took several jobs in both the for-profit and the non-profit sector before I realized that algorithm development and technology consulting were only part of what interested me in the world.  So, sometime in my late twenties, I returned to university, first part-time and then full-time, to earn a doctoral degree in two fields which might seem as far from computer science as possible: history and geography.  Yet the end of this story — so far at least — is that my resulting combination of professional training in technology and liberal arts training in the humanities and social sciences has served me extraordinarily well for the past fifteen years in my second career as a university professor.

It’s these sorts of stories of “planned happenstance” that drive my interest in teaching this new career course.  Throughout the semester we’ll be taking students through a structured process of critical reflection intended to demonstrate to them that the various components of their “Wisconsin Experience” — both inside and outside of the classroom — provide them with a rich menu of high-impact educational options that will prepare them for a wide variety of important and rewarding careers (including many that haven’t even been invented yet).  One of the secrets of turning academic curiosity and excellence into success on the job market, though, is being able to tell the story of your educational accomplishments to a hiring decision-maker — convincing a for-profit, non-profit, or public organization that you can add value, energy, and creativity to their mission.  So storytelling in this class isn’t just a pedagogical tool we choose as the instructors — it’s a learning outcome for the students as well.

I say “we” in terms of instructors because this class, part of the new L&S Career Initiative led by Dean John Karl Scholz and Assistant Dean Rebekah Pryor Paré, represents the most broad-based division of educational labor that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved with. Like many large classes of over 250 students, we have the standard team of graduate teaching assistants leading small discussion sections which complement the engagement of students in my large lectures.  But besides the TAs, each discussion section will include a professional UW academic or career adviser, on hand to help students with questions and assignments in realtime.  These UW experts come from L&S Career Services, from the Cross-College Advising Service, and from several major departments.  And still there’s more: each discussion session will be paired with one of nineteen volunteer UW alumni, who will participate in the conversation via remote conferencing three times during the course of the semester.  Many of these fantastic alums are not only taking precious time to engage with our students as mentors, but also underwriting the costs of the course through generous gift donations.  I can’t thank them all enough.

Take a look at the final syllabus for the course, if you’re interested.  And please contact me if you’re a UW-Madison student, faculty colleague, staff colleague, or alum who would like to become more involved in this innovative, interdisciplinary effort.

A brief history of innovation in higher education

Today it was my pleasure to speak at the annual UW-Madison Teaching and Learning Symposium as one of three keynote speakers on the theme of “Transforming Education.”  (I want to thank everyone who stayed to hear my talk, especially since it was at the end of the whole event and lunch was calling!)

As with the earlier talks by Professor Davidson and Professor Ladson-Billings, my presentation, “A brief history of innovation in higher education,” drew on my own research to explore this topic:

The rhetoric of innovation implies something new and revolutionary, but higher education has a long tradition of experimenting with new technologies, new audiences, and new strategies for teaching and learning. In this talk, Professor Downey will draw on his research into technology and society to set the current debates over higher education innovation in historical context.

I won’t repeat the talk in this post — you can check out reaction on Flickr and Twitter (#teachuw) if you like — but let me just post the slides and highlight the conclusion:

  • Technological innovations in education are always complex, often contradictory, and inevitably tied up with questions about work, value, identity, and power.
  • Considering our own syllabi in historical context can help us productively engage with such questions.
  • All of our scholarship — whether on today’s digital-savvy youth, tomorrow’s advances in brain science, or yesterday’s information infrastructures — can and should be rich sources of teaching and learning innovation.

Finally, here are some links to the original research on which the three case studies in the talk were based:

Thanks again to the organizers of this event for inviting me, and to the audience for their thoughtful commentary!

 

An end-of-year message from the outgoing SJMC Director

Dear students of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication:

As I bring my five-year term as Director of the School to a close this month, I am so proud of the progress that our faculty, our staff, and you, our students, have made together. These were some of the worst budget years for the nation, as well as an unprecedented period of disruptive technological change for the whole mass communication industry. But thanks to all of our efforts, our School is stronger than ever before.

SJMC capConsider just a few comparisons with where we were in Spring 2009 when I first became Director. Today, we count a hundred more majors (and we admit more students each semester); we distribute more scholarship money (including new funds supporting student internships); we engage in more community partnerships (including our award-winning collaboration with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism); and we employ more faculty and staff than at any time since I was hired back in 2001 (with one more new professor, specializing in global media ethics, joining us next fall).

I want to thank you all for your hard work, your support, and your creativity through these challenging years. And … I’d like to ask you for one more thing.

Over the past week we’ve been running a social media campaign across the web and mobile media — including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and our own UW-Madison site — around the theme #SJMCGaveMe. Our goal has been to solicit stories about the difference that SJMC has made in the lives and careers of our many colleagues, alumni, friends and supporters around the world. In just one week we have heard so many great things and reconnected with so many important stakeholders — so far, the campaign has been a huge success! Check out some of the stories on Twitter by searching the hashtag #SJMCGaveMe, or just visit http://sjmcgaveme.journalism.wisc.edu

Our #SJMCGaveMe campaign is still going on for one more week, and I’d like to personally invite you to participate as well. Nothing pleases our alumni more than to hear from the current generation of students who are following in their footsteps. Please, visit http://sjmcgaveme.journalism.wisc.edu/shareyourstory/ today, and share a story of your own. Especially for our graduating seniors, not only do we want to hear from you now, before you leave campus, but also we want to keep in contact with you as you move into your lives and careers beyond UW-Madison.

Finally, if you are so inclined, I’d also like to invite you to make a small gift to our Annual Fund — the same fund we use to keep our iPads up to date, to pay student hourly workers for special projects, and to make sure that our faculty and staff receive the best professional training so that they may pass along the latest techniques to all of you in the classroom. You can find our donation page at http://bit.ly/donatesjmcgaveme

No donation is too small! For graduating seniors, for example, a donation of $20.14 might be a nice symbolic gesture. Plus, for the next week, every donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar by our Alumni Board of Visitors. If you’ve benefited from our technology resources, our scholarships, or our intensive classroom experiences like Curb magazine, you know what kinds of great things these donations can do for the next generation of students. You can start giving back today at http://bit.ly/donatesjmcgaveme

OK, that’s the end of the sales pitch. Let me just close by saying that it has been an honor and a privilege to serve all of you as SJMC Director, and I wish all of you the very best in all that you do. And remember, whether you’re graduating this year or not, don’t ever stop learning — and leading. You’re Badgers — and you’re J-Schoolers — and we hope you’ll always call our campus, and our School, your home.

Forward!

GREG

Gregory J. Downey
Evjue-Bascom Professor
School of Journalism & Mass Communication (Director)
School of Library & Information Studies (Professor)
Center for the History of Print & Digital Culture (Director)
Internships in the Liberal Arts & Sciences (Director)
University of Wisconsin-Madison
5112 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706 USA
gdowney.wordpress.com
gdowney@wisc.edu
(608) 695-4310

http://sjmcgaveme.journalism.wisc.edu
http://sjmcgaveme.journalism.wisc.edu/shareyourstory/
http://bit.ly/donatesjmcgaveme

A new job where I will be wearing more ties

So, invisible blog audience, I have some news.  As UW-Madison College of Letters and Science Dean John Karl Scholz emailed out today,

I am pleased to announce that Greg Downey, Evjue-Bascom Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) and the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), has been appointed the new Associate Dean for the Social Sciences in the College of Letters & Science beginning May 26.

I’m humbled and delighted to have been chosen by Karl for this job, and I look forward to learning more about all of the departments and units that will soon be under my stewardship as an Associate Dean.  For the next two months I’ll be working closely with our current Associate Dean for Social Sciences, Maria Cancian, to make my transition into South Hall a smooth one.  (For those of you who don’t know her, Maria is the official dictionary definition of “a hard act to follow” in this role, but I will do my best.)

I wouldn’t have been a candidate for this job without the five years of intensive administrative and leadership training that my fellow faculty, staff, and students in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication have so graciously (if perhaps unknowingly) provided for me during my time as SJMC Director.  And I am relieved that even as Associate Dean, I will continue to be able to teach my undergraduate course on The Information Society with my fellow faculty, staff, and students in the School of Library & Information Studies.

Downey G - cowboyThis summer, if you’re the chair or director of an L&S social sciences unit, please expect that I’ll come calling with some coffee for a nice long conversation about how we can best work together to support your research, teaching, and service mission.  For everyone else, don’t be shocked if you see me bicycling past you toward South Hall wearing a tie and jacket.  (But probably not the cowboy hat.)