Ten things to consider if you find your research, teaching, or service under political attack

Today I breathed a long sigh of relief. For nearly a month I have been engaged in an all-out defense of a collaboration between my School of Journalism & Mass Communication (where I currently serve as Director) and the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (which occupies two offices in our building in exchange for regular and close collaboration with their professional reporters in our classrooms, plus guaranteed paid reporting internships for our students). That collaboration came under acute legislative attack in early June, but today we found out that the crisis is finally over; the Wisconsin Governor himself ended the attack (for now) with a line-item veto. In short, we won.

Many of my colleagues have already started to ask me “How did you folks do it?”  To be honest, I’m still processing this whole episode both emotionally and analytically, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that yet.  In fact, I’m not sure I ever will; I’m a historian and so I’m trained to understand these sorts of things as contingent events shaped both by long-term patterns of power (a polarized political environment, a difficult economic crisis, and an overt media strategy of attacking public service workers as “takers” rather than “makers”) and by short-term contingencies of possibility (one actor’s political ambitions, another actor’s media saavy, and maybe a third actor’s axe to grind). But I think maybe the best way for me to try to make sense of all this is to write my way through it in a blog post, with the goal of distilling some things for my colleagues to remember if they ever find themselves in a similar situation.  Please be warned, this is a first draft and subject to revision without warning.  But if you’re looking for some details, some speculation, and maybe even some inspiration, read on.

So first the background. Several years ago, our School of Journalism & Mass Communication (SJMC) was excited to innovate and experiment with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) in the kind of “teaching hospital” model of professional education that so many funding agencies and news organizations advocate for today. And I think it was fair to say that WCIJ was excited to have a top-ranked academic home like SJMC from which to generate and distribute its valuable reporting, freely-available to any news outlet across the state or across the nation who wanted it.  From the start it has been a good, productive, and award-winning match.

Then the trouble began. It came in the form of the state budget bill that the Wisconsin  legislature and governor must agree upon every two years — including funding for higher education. Nearly a month ago, in the last hours of negotiation, the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin legislature voted to add two sentences into this budget bill which not only would have evicted the WCIJ from our department, but also would have prevented us from even working with WCIJ professionals at all in our teaching, research, and service mission:

Prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.

This was late in the evening of Tuesday, June 4, 2013. By the morning of Wednesday, June 5, we had begun to fight back. Our first task was to release our own official statements to try to get ahold of the news narrative. Both WCIJ and SJMC released separate statements, and then the College of Letters & Science (of which SJMC is a department) weighed in as well. Next we began to field reporter requests and tried to get the word out as widely as possible, in order to build support among as many constituencies as we could. We had about a week to make the story known before the full legislature — the Assembly and the Senate, both currently Republican-controlled — returned to vote the budget language up or down.  On the UW-Madison side, not only did several departments, our faculty and staff governance bodies, our Dean, and our Chancellor put out supporting statements, but also our official, voluntary, dues-gathering faculty representation organization “PROFS” helped us out with state relations to targeted Assembly and Senate members who might be sympathetic to our cause.  And we know that many, many more students, families, alumni, and other Wisconsin stakeholders wrote letters to legislators and letters to the editors of their local newspapers around the state.  Local, state, and regional media supported us almost unanimously (even across partisan divides of editoral committees).  We even got over 750 signatures on a petition, from supporters around the world.  In short, we did anything and everything we could.

Unfortunately, by Friday, June 21, the polarized legislature had passed the original budget with practically no modifications (and, in the case of the Assembly, really no debate at all). This left only one hope: the line-item veto power of Republican Governor Scott Walker. Once again, we mobilized both the institution (more letters and calls from myself, PROFS and the Chancellor) and the stakeholders (students, alumni, donors, and others across Wisconsin) to prevail upon the Governor to do the right thing.  Today, he did.  He completely deleted those two sentences from the budget bill, preserving our School’s ability to house the Center, and continuing our award-winning collaboration for as long as we both see fit.  (Although he will direct the University Board of Regents to develop a policy for such arrangements going forward.)

That summary was woefully brief but hopefully it will serve as a starting point for the real question: What lessons might one draw from this saga? I can’t provide advice on “what worked and what didn’t” because in the end, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I can identify ten important aspects of our situation that I think helped to strengthen us at the start, to keep us going in the middle, and to vindicate us in the end.

(10) Even before the crisis hit, we built a thoughtful, productive, and defensible relationship. I often have to explain to those from outside the university that almost all the things that we do — especially the important things like hiring, promotion, and development of the curriculum — are democratically discussed, debated, and voted upon. This may seem like an “inefficient” way of operating such a large institution in the short term, but in the long term it builds skills, memory, and legitimacy for organizational goals and practices. So when the first faculty member brought the idea of partnering with the WCIJ to our School, we talked it over in excruciating depth. But in the end we voted to approve it, we cleared it with our Dean, we cleared it with our legal experts, and we had it vetted all the way up to the Chancellor’s level. The Facilities Use Agreement that resulted from all of these democratic meetings and levels of peer review was something we could be proud of — and somethign we could instantly post for the world, when the crisis hit, without fear that we had done anything wrong.

(9) Once the crisis emerged, we were able to react quickly, and with the full support of the institution. The fact that we had laid such good groundwork for the WCIJ collaboration — and monitored it closely over the intervening years — meant that when we found out about the legislative attack, we were able to respond within hours, not days. It was easy to pull together not only talking points, but empirical evidence of success (awards won, students employed, professional reporting careers started, and articles provided for free to state newspapers) in order to let the rest of the professional communicators at the college, university, and system levels do their work. We had all released formal statements within the first hours of learning of the crisis; I had finished nearly a dozen press interviews 24 hours later.

(8) Coordinated decentralization of communication was key. We were all able to act fast, and in concert, with minimal actual coordination; however, it did take a lot of my labor as department chair to make that happen. I wrote a lot of the copy myself, and took most of the initial press interviews, but most of the later press releases and official statements were written by others. All the faculty/staff governance meetings (University Committee, Academic Staff Executive Committee) needed to happen independently (and they did so, amazingly quickly). And the Public Representation Organization of the Faculty Senate (or PROFS), a separate, dues-collecting organization which represents faculty to the state, did an amazing job with its formal informational and lobbying role.  (UW-Madison faculty readers: If you’re not a member of PROFS yet, please sign up now!)  So no single person deserves credit for our communication strategy (or our victory), but someone did need to coordinate communication among actors at different levels of power and responsibility. I believed that would best be done by the department chair, and thanks to the professionalism and trust of my colleagues up and down the institution, I was able to fill that role — setting up a detailed web page and routing emails to the right people.

(7) Our issue was perhaps unique in that we were able to mobilize more than one constituency. Professional journalists immediately understood the “press freedom” angle of the story, and began to make comparisons between WCIJ and Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Eye, and other journalistic groups working for the public interest in collaboration with the state. And the wide reach of WCIJ stories meant that practically every news outlet around the state had a stake in the outcome. But we also received support from fellow faculty, staff, and advocates for academic and intellectual freedom, both across UW and elsewhere, because the clear implication of the attack on WCIJ was that such power to arbitrarily strike down one collaborative research/teaching/service relationship, if unchallenged, would spell the end of the “Wisconsin Idea” itself, and would be a major blow to our famous “sifting and winnowing” creed that academic faculty and staff should have the leeway to do their jobs based on their professional expertise, rather than on the political whims of others. This idea dovetailed with a final constituency: those who simply advocate for transparent and accountable governance — which in a state like Wisconsin, with its history of both populist and Progressive reform, is still alive on all sides of the partisan aisle (although admittedly advocates of the Democratic side, currently in legislative minority, were probably rallied for the fight for partisan reasons as well).

(6) This mix of both political and non-political stakeholders brings up an important point, though: We found that the journalism community is more united by professional ethics than divided by partisan political-economic philosophy. We received support from both a conservative talk-radio host and a nationally-respected columnist for the progressive Nation. We received national media attention in both Esquire and Wired.  News outlets from all over the state covered the story fairly (and, from what I saw, almost unanimously editorialized about it favorably). Journalists from all backgrounds and niches recognize when the very core of their profession is under attack.

(5) Our foes were unwilling to begin their attack with an open debate and clear argument, so their justifications after the fact were secondhand, contradictory, and unconvincing.  Again, this was perhaps a very unique situation for us. The budget amendment we were fighting against was both far-reaching and vaguely-worded — but in the end, it arrived in that budget without either formal attribution or explicit justification (although it was approved by a party-line vote, Republicans for it and Democrats against). In the days and weeks afterward we heard a myriad of potential reasons for the measure, offered by half-a-dozen different unofficial spokespersons. It was because of “liberal bias,” said some, either in the reporting or the funding of the WCIJ (both charges easiliy demonstrated as false); or it was because of the “taxpayer subsidy” that was supposedly going to the WCIJ (no such subsidy existed; it was a contractual relationship where each side received a clear benefit); or it was simply unacceptable for the “media” to be related at all to the “university” or the “state” (tell that to Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Eye, or even the folks in the press room at the Rotunda building). One rationalization even seemed to suggest that no non-profit outside organization should ever partner with UW-Madison (tell that to the Morgridge Center for Public Service!).  The lack of coherence, consistency, and clarity from the attacking side was the biggest help we received in our own communication campaign.

(4) We did face communication obstacles, though. Overly broad interpretation of the reasonable and proper limits on electioneering by state employees in the workplace has a significant chilling effect on our ability to communicate about any issue deemed “political”. On the first day of the crisis, I posted for my own faculty and staff the official guidelines against using state resources (or state time) to advocate for particular political candidates in elections. Clearly this crisis didn’t fall into such a category, I thought. But about halfway through this drama, after I had sent updates to many faculty and staff within UW, issued formal statements on our SJMC web site, talked to dozens of media outlets, communicated the situation to our students and to our alumni Board of Visitors, and set up a comprehensive action page to help others follow the crisis in realtime, I began to get a series of concerned emails from trusted alumni who worried that I might lose my position as Director — or even my job — because I may have crossed a line from “educational” speech to “political” speech. At this point I double-checked with UW-Madison experts on the matter, and they assured me that my actions fell under commonly accepted allowances for such speech. But it became clear to me that others were unwilling to speak up for fear of the legislature targeting them (or their departments, or their own public/private collaborations) in the same way that the WCIJ had been targeted.

(3) Context hurt us, but maybe it helped us too. It is my opinion that over the past two years UW-Madison and the UW System have come under general attack by this legislature. While there are always things our institutions could be (and should be) doing better, these days it seems that each question turns into a crisis, and each crisis into punitive retaliation, all too quickly and easily. Much of this dynamic can be traced back to the very contentious budget bill from two years ago, with its rhetorical and legal targeting of public service workers of all types, which resulted in mass protests and a series of recall elections (mostly, but not entirely, unsuccessful).  And while the very real issues of rising tuition and rising student debt are felt every day by both students and their families, unfortunately the question of shrinking state support for higher education is too easily removed from this equation in the public debate.  Such a heated and polarized context may have worked in our favor, though, as well. It’s clear that some in the legislature are trying to move on from acrimony to governance (such as Republican Senator Dale Schulz, an early and vocal advocate for UW maintaining its collaboration with the Center). And Governor Scott Walker is perhaps harboring higher political ambitions for the future,  seeking a momentary chance to act as a moderate. Thus political reactions to an issue with the potential for national staying power (and embarassment) were quite possibly different than they might have been in other circumstances. History probably matters.

(2) Regardless of all of our communication strategies, we very rightly let others act independently.  This is a key point; for all we did, we didn’t do it all.  I actually had very minimal communication and coordination with the WCIJ staff during this episode, although I’m certain we  both learned from each other’s public postings and action pages as the crisis unfolded. In many ways, I suspect WCIJ staff were more restricted by professional norms, expectations, and legalities than we were in the kind of advocacy they could undertake. Other non-profit organizations and professional societies weighed in as well, and while we passed those communications along near and far, we were happy to let the focus and content of those arguments fit the circumstances of their authors. And of course we also let our fellow faculty, staff, students, and stakeholders respond as they felt they could, or must. For weeks the social media were abuzz with tweets and facebook status updates by and for the densely-knit social network that followed it most closely; however, I suspect some of the most persuasive and important responses came from folks at more of a distance who were moved to write the editors of their own Wisconsin news outlets, and say, for whatever reason, “This isn’t right.” They won the victory today.

Finally, one last observation: (1) We got lucky. In the end, I worry that we still have a situation where one or more unnamed, unnaccountable legislators can try to nullify a university project of research, teaching, and service at any time, for no reason, with no notification and with no public debate. In the crisis just ended, the bureaucratic friction of moving a budget bill from draft to law allowed us time to mobilize; the idiosyncracies of a single Governor’s veto pen worked in our favor; but we lost every legislative battle before that, and badly. I remain acutely concerned about the future of the university in such an environment. I fear that for many of my colleagues — and maybe for myself as well — such concern has already translated into a “chilling effect,” making us less bold, less innovative, less creative, and more risk-averse in our research, teaching, and service than we might otherwise be. That’s what is really at stake in battles like these. And that is why we must be ready for the next one.

Update 04 July 2013: The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has posted a superb and concise “prepare and respond” checklist of their own (presented at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference on 22 June 2013).

2 thoughts on “Ten things to consider if you find your research, teaching, or service under political attack

  1. Pingback: Center’s possible eviction from UW: Summary and resources | WisconsinWatch.org

  2. Pingback: We found that t… | JOUR du Jour

Comments are closed.