Bon Iver's incredible set had finished hours ago, but the work of packing thousand-foot cables, hundreds of lights and multimillion-dollar video screens was far from over. The inaugural Eaux Claires Music &Arts Festival drew over 20,000 visitors to the Chippewa Valley in July, and UW-Eau Claire provided 65 stagehands to keep the two-day, multistage festival in full swing.
Thirty-seven Blugolds (including myself) and 28 other students from UW System schools spent 10 days as crew members for the festival. From early in the morning until late at night, these eager hands constructed everything from main stages to scaffolding to help realize the festival's artistic vision, created in part by alumnus and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon. The work was daunting;the weather, unpredictable;the experience of putting on a collaborative two-day music festival, irreplaceable.
The entire experience was a surreal juxtaposition: On the one hand, I was backstage at the most-talked-about music festival in the country;on the other hand, barely six days before, Gov. Scott Walker had signed the 2015-17 state budget. It was a classic Dickensian best-of-times, worst-of-times situation —but with more folk music and less French Revolution.
News of the proposed budget, which ended up cutting $250 million from the UW System, cast a pall over the campus during spring semester, and many conversations on campus carried an undercurrent of uncertainty. At times, the only thing I knew for certain was that UW-Eau Claire would remain strong regardless of what happened in Madison. People usually didn't believe me, and most would ask me how I knew that to be true.
My answer came just after Justin Vernon left the stage.
Sixth months prior, I entered this budget debate knowing many of the players in Madison who we'd be dealing with. I'd worked with the state Legislature for the Student Senate for the past two years and realized that communicating about this nuanced issue to multiple audiences would be difficult. Rather than shouting from the rooftops that the sky was falling, the Student Senate and administrators at UW-Eau Claire pledged to work with the Legislature to protect the value of a Blugold degree.
Let me be clear. The governor's proposed budget was not the budget I wanted to see introduced in January, nor was the proposed public authority a perfect deal for the UW System. It was, however, what we had to work with. With that in mind, the Student Senate came out in favor of the public authority's cost-saving flexibilities, asked for a reduction of the overall UW System cut and lobbied hard for the Confluence Project's inclusion in the final budget. My fear from the outset of this debate was that we could lose all flexibilities provided by the public authority model while keeping our share (or more) of the proposed $300 million cut. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.
We took this message with us to Madison six times in the first seven weeks of the spring semester. In early March, the Senate brought 50 students to Madison and had them share their personal experiences from UW-Eau Claire with over a third of our state's legislators. We did what we could to preserve the best of the governor's budget while minimizing the worst.
After months of advocacy and conversations with legislators, we undid some of the damage. I believe tenure and shared governance will be safe in UW System Board of Regents policy —after all, this budget process showed us that they were never really safe in state statute anyway. Still, UW-Eau Claire is entering the year with the same cut that was projected in January and few, if any, additional flexibilities to offset that decrease to our operating budget. And yet, I still say that we will remain strong.
An ingrained mission
Aaron Sorkin once wrote in an episode of the TV show "The West Wing," "Every time we think we've measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we are reminded that that capacity may well be limitless." Such is true of UW-Eau Claire.
When news of the next budget broke, UW-Eau Claire organized Rapid Action Task Forces that brought together students, faculty, staff and administrators to construct a collaborative vision for the future. They reaffirmed our pledge to spend Blugold Commitment dollars as students intended —on high-impact practices —and focused on the importance of diversity, collaboration and intellectual courage.
But how can you say that UW-Eau Claire will remain strong in the face of all these changes? It was at 3 a.m., just hours after Bon Iver had finished their reunion set at the Eaux Claires Music &Arts Festival, that the answer hit me.
Even as news of the budget was spreading in January, we were building a team of Blugolds to work the Eaux Claires festival. In light of the impending budget cut, this move made sense —partnership with the festival and opening our residence halls to guests meant new sources of revenue. But that wasn't why we sought out this partnership —it was to provide students with a firsthand look at life in the music industry, the work that goes into producing live music and the power of community collaboration.
For all, this was an impactful, unforgettable learning experience, and providing those kinds of opportunities for students is something UW-Eau Claire does naturally. Even though we're facing a difficult year, that instinct and dedication will get us through and preserve the value students expect from their education. When we work together, with our hearts and minds focused on our mission and the incomparable student experience it creates, there's nothing the Blugold Nation can't accomplish.
In the coming pages you'll see how faculty and staff, all imbued with the UW-Eau Claire mission, went above and beyond to help Tayo Sanders become UW-Eau Claire's first Rhodes scholar in 10 years, support countless other students who are already seeing the value of their Blugold degrees and maintain the tradition of excellence we're all proud of.
UW-Eau Claire will remain strong —our spirit is too buoyant, our purpose too steadfast and our mission too ingrained for us to shrink in the face of this challenge. Just as a group of Blugolds labored through the night to pack up the Eaux Claires Music &Arts Festival, we too shall emerge together from this difficult journey, stronger from the experience, to see the light of day.