Meet the Wisconsin Student Leader Who Just Told Professors to Grow Up

May 11, 2016

Courtesy Jacob Wrasse
Jacob Wrasse, the departing student-body president at the U. of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: "A vote of no confidence doesn’t achieve what we want it to, because all it does is create infighting rather than telling a story about us and showing why the UW is so incredible."
It’s not often that a college student publicly accuses professors of immaturity and poor judgment. Yet Jacob W. Wrasse, a senior who this week finished his term as president of the student body at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, has done just that as his campus’s University Senate considers whether to rebuke top university-system officials for failing to better shield professors’ tenure protections from a legislative assault.

A motion pending before the Senate declares no confidence in the commitment of the system’s Board of Regents and Raymond W. Cross, its president, to defending the system’s basic mission. The Senate gave the motion a first reading on Tuesday and could vote to approve it in the fall. Professors on other campuses in the system have approved, or are considering, similar measures.

In a letter he has shared with system officials, the news media, and student leaders on other system campuses, Mr. Wrasse warned Eau Claire’s University Senate that passing the motion would make it look foolish, childish, and out of touch.

The Chronicle interviewed Mr. Wrasse on Tuesday. Following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Q. What were you hoping to accomplish in writing your letter to the University Senate?

A. When I saw that the University Senate was going to be considering a vote of no confidence, something that I believed to be an ineffective political move that doesn’t accomplish any of the goals that they set forth in it, I knew I had to speak up.

Not only does it show no confidence in the regents and the system president, but it shows no confidence in the many, many students who went to Madison through the last year and a half to advocate on behalf of the UW system. It reflects negatively on the whole university — all students, all faculty and staff — not just the few faculty in leadership that have brought this forward.

Q. Your letter accuses the Senate motion’s authors of "child-like petulance" and says their motion "is embarrassingly naïve." Why did you use such strong language?

A. I wanted it to be clear that though I am a student, I still have a strong, qualified opinion. Unfortunately, because I believed the University Senate to be so incensed on this issue and not thinking clearly, it was important that I cut through and cause them to fundamentally re-examine this, not in terms of logic but in whether or not they are qualified and prepared to be making this kind of a vote.

Q. You take issue with the motion’s assertions that the university system’s Board of Regents and its president, Ray Cross, failed to adequately fight for the system. You call such criticisms "incredibly backward and irrational." Do you honestly feel those system officials did all they could?

A. We faced an incredibly uphill ideological battle. This wasn’t about what the University of Wisconsin system actually is. It was about what select Republican legislators who oppose the UW system think it is. We were in a no-win situation. If we yelled and screamed and said the sky was falling, that only further alienates the legislature. If we took a calm, rational approach, the best we could hope for is that they listen to us and that that builds some influence on our part. At worst they sit back and continue to have negative beliefs.

The final budget that we ended up with was infinitely better than the one that the Legislature had originally put forward. The UW system regents, and President Cross, were a major part of the boots-on-the-ground, politically competent work that was done to help legislators see a broader picture, and not one that the legislators would see as based on emotion or ideological differences. In that way I believe we did all we could.

I respect those who disagree and say we should have protested and been much more vocal. I understand that method of effecting change. But I think it has been demonstrated that large emotional protests do not move this Legislature or governor at all. If anything, they allow those parties to portray their opponents as silly or irrational, people who skip work to protest.

Q. Your letter says you understand "the unwavering negative stigma and contempt legislators have for tenure." Why do you think they look upon tenure so unfavorably?

A. Many of the legislators in Wisconsin, particularly conservative Republicans who take issue with tenure and more funding for the UW system in general, have a very capitalistic, entrepreneurial ideology about economics and how you live a life and support yourself. I met with members of the Legislature who had an eighth-grade education and had built their own company.

To these people, the massive expenditure that is the UW system, combined with what they perceive to be lifetime job security regardless of your performance on the job, makes the UW system and tenure very unpopular, deprioritized items in their minds. My letter hoped to inform the University Senate that that opinion is out there. I hope it was not perceived as me endorsing or supporting that ideology.

Q. You express fear that the university system will pay a political price down the road for actions like the Senate motion. What are you worried about?

A. It is important that we adequately express ourselves and show why what we do has value. A vote of no confidence doesn’t achieve what we want it to, because all it does is create infighting rather than telling a story about us and showing why the UW is so incredible.

What this will do is show how out-of-touch faculty are, given they don’t share the same understanding of what Madison is like. That fact, combined with the perception that faculty have excess time to go outside the classroom and make these sort of motions, that won’t actually have any political ramifications that they want it to. It only makes the UW look less informed, less logical, and, from the mind-set of these Republican legislators, less important to the people of Wisconsin.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.