I have a history of living in places that get overshadowed by other places. Growing up around Rochester, New York, I learned quickly that when I told people where I was from, I couldn’t say “New York.” New York City was the center of gravity for the entire state. It was a solid seven-hour drive from where I lived, but that didn’t matter; as far as the state was concerned, if you didn’t live in the metro NYC area, you were an afterthought. (People from western New York are the only ones who know this answer quickly and without Googling it: Name the only NFL team that plays its home games in New York.)
Living in Western Massachusetts brought a similar feeling. To the rest of the world, Massachusetts is Boston. In fact, within the state, it often felt like the state was Boston. But living on the other end of the state from Boston, in a region with a completely different economy (and even accent), it was hard not to feel ignored. And of course, New Jersey has long been overshadowed by New York City and Philadelphia; Ben Franklin’s characterization of it as a barrel tapped at both ends is still recognizable.
Working in the community college sector, I get the same feeling when I hear popular discussion of higher education that takes Ivies or flagship state universities as the norm. The Ivy League consists of eight schools, and there are maybe sixty state flagships (NY has four, California has, well, never mind…), but there are over 1100 community colleges in the United States. Still, in our politics, community and state colleges are afterthoughts.
That’s probably why IHE’s piece about the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, and its efforts to deal with catastrophic cuts in state funding, resonated with me as much as it did. Political decisions based on stereotypes about research universities have real consequences out in the provinces, even though nobody even bothered to address conditions there before making drastic changes. So the folks in the provinces are forced to make the best of a bad situation created by people who never had them in mind. They cut financial aid staff, advisors, and numerous behind-the-scenes people, as well as some nontenured faculty, while being told to do a better job.
From the article, it sounds like the leadership at UW-Eau Claire is playing a bad hand pretty well. It avoided costly consultants and chose to be as transparent as it could, given that it was dealing with personnel issues. (With personnel matters, there is always a limit to transparency.) It acknowledged the impact on morale, and is trying to get acknowledgement at the state level. Those are all to the good, even though the battle is distinctly uphill.
The travails at UW-Madison have received tremendous coverage, both in formal and social media. Some of that is due to the monumental efforts of Sara Goldrick-Rab, and some of it stems from a combination of Madison’s prominence and Governor Walker’s presidential ambitions. Eau Claire hasn’t had nearly the exposure, though one could argue that the impact on Eau Claire is at least as bad, if not worse.
To the Eau Claires of the world, I say, keep fighting. No disrespect to Madison, or Boston, or New York City, but sometimes things look different from here. It would be nice to see that acknowledged before terrible decisions were made.