The university we deserve

August 31, 2017

This looks like it's going to be a busy year for activists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other campuses across the country, writes Molly Mapstone.

AS STUDENTS and faculty arrive on campuses in the coming days and weeks, they will face increased austerity, as university administrations prioritize profit over education, and corporate interests over the people who learn and work there.

At the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison, there are several important and diverse struggles on the horizon that will shape how we take on the neoliberal university and how we build the solidarity we need among students, faculty and campus workers.

Members of the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), which represents graduate student employees, are in a fight for the life of their union, as the administration seeks to gut their ability to organize their co-workers.

Last semester, the university police pulled a Black student from a Black Visual Culture class and arrested him, for allegedly painting anti-racist graffiti in response to racism on campus.

Sexual assaults are on the rise at UW, with no clear plan from the university to take action. State legislators threaten the accreditation of the medical school with no push back from the university administration.

Graduate workers rally for a fair contract at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Graduate workers rally for a fair contract at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (TAA - Graduate Worker Union of UW-Madison | Facebook)

New legislation could also make it possible for guns to be carried on campus. The university currently buys goods made by prison labor. Money is being drained from actual education to feed a bloated administration and athletics department.

The list goes on and on, which is why this will be a crucial year for organizing on campus.

IT'S CLEAR that one goal of the UW administration is busting the TAA union.

When Act 10, the Republican-sponsored bill that gutted collective bargaining in Wisconsin, went into effect in 2011, the TAA was immediately impacted--meaning that its legal recognition as a bargaining agent for graduate students was rendered null and void.

The university doesn't recognize the TAA--the oldest graduate student union in the country which has been organizing for more than 50 years in response to unfair wages and working conditions--as a union. On top of that, the administration is opposed to the organization of graduate students in any capacity, which places graduate students in a vulnerable position.

With graduate students doing 60 percent of face-to-face instruction at UW-Madison, their labor is necessary for the operation of the university. Since the passage of Act 10 as well as a "right-to-work" measure in 2015, the rights of public-sector unions and the TAA have been severely threatened.

Right-to-work laws damage unions by eliminating mandatory union dues for collective bargaining by a democratically elected union. By making dues optional, financially strapped unions are much more likely to crumble under pressure from bosses and systems looking for ways to bust them anyway.

The university administration has threatened to reduce graduate student workers' rights to a handbook instead of a binding contract. Should the university succeed in crushing the rights of graduate student workers, the rest of the university will feel the effects. The quality of education received by undergraduate students--and the quality of work and research done by the graduate student workers--will suffer.

UW-MADISON students also face considerable threats to their own safety from the people that claim to protect them--namely the university police. This spring, after a Black student allegedly wrote anti-racist graffiti on several buildings on campus, the university responded to this nonviolent crime by sending university police to his classroom, with bullet-proof vests and guns visible to all, and pull the student from the class, causing a major disruption.

"The university is more interested in protecting the symbols of UW as a progressive institution, like their buildings and Bucky [UW's mascot], rather than the students who are actually fighting for social change, and apparently their live," states Johanna Almiron, the Afro-American Studies professor whose class was interrupted, in a letter circulated among students and faculty after the incident.

At the same time, the university has had a weak response to the rise in reports of sexual assault on campus, including the case of Alec Cook, an undergraduate student accused of assaulting 11 women over several years. The university police were reportedly aware of his activities long before finally intervening, and it wasn't their investigation that led to his arrest, but rather a series of brave young women who spoke out on social media.

To state it plainly, the UW police will go out of their way to arrest a street artist, but will remain silent when women's lives are at stake.

The campus newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, reports a serious rise in the amount of sexual assault reports at UW-Madison--325 reports in 2016, up from 217 reports in 2015. Of all these cases in 2016, two students found guilty were placed on probation, three resulted in suspension, and one expelled.

Like many universities in the U.S., UW-Madison is deliberately minimizing the scale of sexual assault on campus to uphold the reputation of the institution, rather than defend the safety of its students. Given the case of Alec Cook, the policies regarding punishment and investigation of sexual assault cases aren't sufficient for the scope of the issue which greatly threatens the safety of women on campus.

Other pressing issues at UW-Madison include: the university using prison labor to produce goods for the university, major cuts to departments specifically under fire from the Trump administration, a bill threatening accreditation of the university OB/GYN program, bloated administration salaries. On top of that, Chancellor Rebecca Blank's pick for "Go Big Read," a book that is given to all new students and offered to everyone who wants a copy, this year is Hillbilly Elegy, which supports the fallacy that poor people are individually responsible for their situation and poverty.

THE ISSUES facing students and faculty of UW Madison aren't unique. Consider demonstrations at Syracuse University that defended the right to take part in political activism on campus, or the administration's union-busting tactics at the New School in New York, or the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses across the U.S.

The recent success of Students for Justice in Palestine who passed a resolution calling on UW-Madison to divest from Israeli companies demonstrates the power students have to put pressure on their administration. This is especially true at UW-Madison, where shared governance is law. While the agreement that was reached concerning divestment wasn't as radical as the original proposal, pressure from below is what caused the university to give way to student demands.

Graduate students are also hard at work fighting for rights to mandatory communication on policy change, clearly defined job titles and other issues key to graduate student workers. UW-Madison students have also successfully held several demonstrations to demand that university administration take sexual assault reports seriously, and actively work against the prevailing issue.

These are just examples of struggles that took place in the past two years, and mostly on a single campus. This year, we look poised for a full year of more struggles.

What we do on our campuses matters. What's happening to our universities isn't normal, and it isn't right. We deserve better, not just as students but also as human beings. If we're fighting for a better world, a good place to start is on our campuses. This year, we also have an opportunity to link together our different struggles, build solidarity and bring together the forces we will need to fight for the colleges and universities we deserve.

Join the socialists if you wish to fight this battle from all fronts and intersections. And get ready for the fight of your life.

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