Nicole Walker almost met the governor.
In April, Gov. Doug Ducey spoke at the installation ceremony for the new president of Northern Arizona University, where Walker is an assistant professor teaching undergraduate and graduate classes in poetry and creative nonfiction.
When he took to the podium, Ducey praised NAU as a cultural and economic hub of the region and said he looked forward to working with the school’s leadership to chart a future for the university. The university will soon be shouldering a $17 million cut from Ducey’s first budget as governor.
Walker was scheduled to read one of her poems just minutes after Ducey spoke, and was elated to have the governor as a captive audience.
It wasn’t her first attempt at communicating with Ducey.
In March, when lawmakers passed Ducey’s budget that cut $99 million from the state’s three universities, Walker sent Ducey a letter condemning the cuts to higher education. And then she sent him another. And another. And another. And another.
By the time the two were in the same room at NAU, Walker had sent Ducey a total of 45 letters via the comment section on his website.
Neither Ducey nor anyone from his staff responded.
So when she was preparing to read “Excellence,” her poem infusing nature imagery and shout-outs to NAU professors and their research, Walker thought she finally had her chance to live out one of the recurring awkward jokes in her letters: an offer to read poetry to Ducey.
“I had this attitude as I was getting ready to read it. I was like, finally, he’s going to listen to me!” she said.
But after the governor delivered his four-minute speech, he didn’t stick around to hear Walker’s poem. He was whisked away to another event, skipping the rest of the 90-minute ceremony.
So Walker wrote him another letter instead.
“Dear Governor Ducey,” it read.
“I almost met you today. You walked right by me. I met your security guards, at least,” she wrote. She told him she had hoped he would stay to hear the other speeches about different visions for the university, and to hear her poem, but she understands he is a busy man.
She included her poem in the letter.
“Maybe you’ll hear it one day,” she wrote.
She never got a response.
A BUBBLY PERSONALITY
Walker knows her letter-writing campaign seems a little crazy, and she jokes that the FBI is probably filling a manila envelope with her name on it.
If so, the packet would likely include a bio stating that Walker holds a PhD, has written two books and won myriad awards for her poetry. It might say that she’s married with two kids, has a bubbly personality and is incredibly chatty. The feds would surely note she’s an environmentalist and a Democrat.
But then, Ducey would know most of that if he read her letters.
Currently, she has written 49 letters to him. The topics range from her experience teaching writing at a state prison, picking up garbage on the side of the road, her hikes and fly fishing expeditions, plastic bags, the death of her dog and her grandmother, bad drivers, urban farming, hoarding pennies and the racial tensions in Baltimore, to name a few. Some are highly critical of the governor, some are sarcastic and some strike a chummy tone.
But they almost all lead back to one overarching topic – higher education.
The impact of budget decisions on her college town, her colleagues and her students are all frequent themes in the letters. Taken as a whole on her blog, nikwalk.blogspot.com, where she also posts the letters, a portrait emerges of the practical and psychological effects of budget cuts to the university community.
SPURRED TO ACTION
Walker started teaching at NAU in 2008, just before the onset of the Great Recession. By spring semester 2009, the landscape in the state university system had changed dramatically. Professors were being forced to take furloughs, staffers were laid off, tuition was skyrocketing and state funding was plummeting. Those were scary years that she thought were behind her.
“You were really afraid you were going to get fired or your friends were going to get fired, or your program was going to get shrunk. So you were living in this constant state of fear and scarcity,” she said.
Last year, things were looking better than they had in a long time. State support for NAU was still down significantly since Walker had started, but the universities had seen two consecutive years of modest funding increases.
But facing a new revenue shortfall, lawmakers and the new governor cut NAU’s budget by another $17 million, bringing the coming year’s general fund support to $101 million, down more than a third from $158 million in 2008.
The latest round of budget cuts, which sped through the Legislature with little time for public input or opposition, spurred Walker into action.
Her first letter was a maudlin but earnest plea for Ducey to reconsider the cuts. But after time, they became much more than that.
“At the beginning I did have some hope that I could stop it… Like I had some power of any kind, like he’ll listen to citizens. And then it became kind of a catharsis. But at this point it’s become something else, which is how expansive can I get? How off the tracks can I go and still feel like there’s a center to these letters,” she said of the project. “I guess my true hope is that one of them will get to him. That’s why I keep trying. It’s like ‘this will be the one.’”
A LITERARY VOICE
Flagstaff City Councilwoman and fellow NAU professor Eva Putzova regularly checks Walker’s blog to read the letters, and said Walker’s letters are “an interesting way to react to what’s going on in politics.”
“It’s kind of a backdoor response to our political environment. I really enjoy them, they’re clever and they make you think about the implications politics has on our daily lives,” Putzova said.
Putzova said the letters capture what it’s like to be in academia in Arizona, where the universities have been “cut to the bone.”
Although Walker doesn’t speak on behalf of the university, and started the letter project in her spare time while on sabbatical, her letters reflect the views of many professors and university staff, who wish Arizona’s leaders would pay more than lip service to the university system.
“She is in some ways a literary voice, but also a voice of faculty,” Putzova said. “I think there is a lot of anxiety in academia these days because the universities have been cut so many times. And we know these cuts are permanent. Or at least permanent until our political scene changes.”
Putzova said the metaphors Walker uses, such as relating an old picnic bench she recently fixed up to taking ownership of the state’s education system, can make people think differently about what it should mean to govern – that is, if anyone reads the letters.
Ducey’s spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, wasn’t aware of the letters until an Arizona Capitol Times reporter brought them to his attention.
He noted that Walker’s letters have been submitted through a popular feature on the governor’s website that has two boxes that a commenter can check, one stating that the writer would like assistance and the other stating that the writer is leaving a comment.
Because the function is so popular – Ducey has received roughly 100,000 comments since taking office in January – the three staffers who read the letters have to decide which ones need a response.
“We receive a large volume of comments, which we appreciate and take seriously and try to look at as much as possible. But issues where people need assistance that they need help with are our first priority,” Scarpinato said, noting Walker always clicks the comment box.
Still, he said the governor encourages citizens to reach out to the governor, and said it’s important for people to contact him “so that they can make sure their government is listening to them.”
Walker doesn’t feel her government is listening.
“I think in some ways, that’s what inspires me to go on. I feel like (Ducey) is not listening at all. It makes me just want to keep writing stranger and stranger letters… Maybe I’ll just keep going until the next election,” she said.