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It seems to me: We can't cut our way to a better future

Editor's note: The following It Seems to Me column by B.J. Hollars, UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of English, appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and is reprinted with permission.

During the past three and a half years, it has been my honor to serve as an English professor at UW-Eau Claire. 

In this time, I have received top-tier teaching evaluations, published eight books, won two regional writing prizes, and served my community by holding positions on several arts boards and making regular classroom visits to public and private schools throughout our region. 

I am no exception. Rather, I offer myself up as but one humble example of the kind of high-caliber, dedicated professor one finds regularly within the UW System, and certainly at UW-Eau Claire.

While I fear the proposed $300 million budget cuts from the UW System may indeed spur a mass exodus of our most talented faculty members, my far greater fear is a mass exodus of our talented students — not only from our university, but from our state as well. 

While the practical implications of such a deep cut are surely evident (larger class sizes, fewer offerings, and fewer faculty, just to name a few), of equal concern to me is the message we send to our system's 180,000 students, a message that implies that we are no longer willing to invest in them, that their futures are no longer our concern. 

However, having had the great privilege to work with these students for some time now, I can attest to the contrary. Our students are hard-working people committed not only to their dreams, but also giving back to our state. As proof of their dedication, many work two to three jobs, and then trudge through subzero temperatures just to enter my classroom. Every time they step inside and offer me a smile, I can't help but see my young children's faces in their own. Which is why I strive to give them every opportunity, hopeful that one day my own children might be given the same.

Our governor has spoken often of his commitment to making a better Wisconsin for our children. I couldn't agree more. And so, if we all agree on the principle, then we need only muster the courage to carry out this sacred charge. 

What is most disconcerting to me is that many of the folks who will make this budgetary decision have themselves been a product of a UW education. Their success, in part, is due to the very system that is now at risk. For one generation to deny a high-quality education to the next, I fear, undermines our shared commitment to making a better Wisconsin for our children. It is not too late to make a change. 

I'll close with an anecdote, which I hope will elucidate the great dedication I often observe from my colleagues and administrators in Eau Claire. A week ago Friday evening —at the end of a very difficult week —I ran into our university's chancellor in the frozen food aisle of our grocery store. I thanked him for his leadership and he thanked me for my own work. I offhandedly mentioned my recent efforts to showcase the value of a UW education by visiting middle school and high school classrooms throughout the state —on my own time, at my own expense. He thanked me for that as well, and then we parted ways.

Under other circumstances, this brief encounter would be wholly forgettable. But given the announcements issued last week, it is a moment I will long remember: one in which two men found themselves in a frozen food aisle on a Friday afternoon and could discuss nothing but how best to continue to serve our students. It is proof, I think, that here in Eau Claire, our commitment to students starts at the top and trickles down to the lowliest of English professors. 

Please understand that I write this with a heavy heart. I'd much rather be teaching. But when you love your students, your university, your city and your state, sometimes silence is no longer an option. 

My hope is that by writing, we might work to bring together all of Wisconsin's citizens —regardless of politics —to ask for a more moderate approach;namely, a budget that highlights our faith in our people for the betterment of our state. Let us all take this opportunity to rally around this idea, this Wisconsin idea, one that has always served us well in the past and will surely serve us well in the future.