The End Of Public Higher Education In Wisconsin?

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Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Saturday. Credit Jabin Botsford/The New York Times

In Scott Walker’s first budget in 2011, the one that included the notorious Act 10, which outlawed the formation of, and any substantive bargaining from, public employee unions, there was a proposal to split off UW-Madison from the UW System by making Madison a “public authority.” Back in 2011 plans for this separation of Madison from the UW System went so far that Biddy Martin, then UW-Madison Chancellor, had prepared the text for a new Chapter 37, which would apply only to UW-Madison and would govern it as a public authority that preserved all of the protections for academic freedom, faculty governance, and tenure that are written in to the Wisconsin Statutes. This 2011 proposal would have left the legal status of the rest of the System unchanged under Chapter 36, which lays out the statutory authority (and guidelines) for the University of Wisconsin System, the only university system in the nation so authorized. Indeed in 2010, when I was recruited to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies (and when Scott Walker was only a candidate for the governorship of Wisconsin), this statutory protection was held up as a point of pride for the UW System because it provided more substantive academic protections than in other states.

In 2011 resistance both by the UW System and by Republican lawmakers with UW campuses in their districts caused this plan to be dropped; instead the Republican legislature took the option behind door number 2, which was to slash funding for the System and freeze tuition, thus forcing severe budget cuts on all campuses, including Madison. Knowing that no major proposal from Scott Walker could go forward without consultation with his big-money handlers about how it would impact his future as a presidential candidate, I do not think that this public authority idea was raised lightly, or that it was dropped from Walker’s ALEC-inspired playbook simply because of initial opposition in 2011. Indeed the idea has resurfaced in 2015 in the run-up to Walker’s budget announcement on February 3, but this time in relation to the whole system, without singling out Madison. What would it mean to transform the University of Wisconsin System from a state agency to a public authority? To answer this question we need to understand what the consequences would be for the UW System, how this might serve as a model for other red states (think Kansas, for example), and how it could be leveraged to propel Walker’s campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination.

Although all of the details are not filled in, it looks like Scott Walker’s bold presidential campaign move for 2016 will be the transformation of the university system from a state agency dependent on taxpayer funding to a quasi-independent “public-benefit corporation,” thus legalizing in practice what has already been happening in theory, the corporatization of the University of Wisconsin System. By granting the System autonomy and freedom to make its own administrative/business decisions and therefore, or so the neoliberalism of the ALEC playbook goes, Walker and his Republican allies will enable the System to find “efficiencies” and raise revenues that will compensate for the cuts in state funding, which according to an announcement on January 27, will return to their 1998 levels with a $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System in the upcoming biennial. In addition to these devastating cuts, the first year of which for University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee would be equivalent to the entire budget of the Lubar School of Business, the danger of this transformation to semi-private corporation is that System employees and faculty would lose their statutory protections (things like tenure, faculty governance, job security, and academic freedom are currently protected by state statutes) in favor of the contractual protections offered by the Board of Regents, who will now have almost complete authority over the UW System.

The problem with this change, of course, is that 16 of the 18 Regents are political appointees (appointed by the governor)—two ex-officio and 14 on staggered seven-year terms—as opposed to being elected, say, as they are (on a campus-by-campus basis) in Michigan, where I formerly taught. That means, four years into the Walker administration, that more than half of the governor-appointed Regents are Walker appointees; before the end of Scott Walker’s second term all of them will be. So by the end of this next biennial budget (2017), tenure and faculty governance, as well as such decisions like the appropriate number of campuses needed for the System, will be at the whims of a board made up entirely of Scott Walker appointees.

The political brilliance of this move (make no mistake, Walker and his handlers are brilliant electoral politicians) is that if and when these protections are stripped in the next couple of years, the blame will not go to the Governor or the legislature but to the Walker-appointed Board of Regents, who will claim to have acted responsibly and in the system’s interests to make changes to deal with the terrible crisis caused by the Republican tax cuts. When tuition is raised and campuses closed, it will not be the state government that did it, but those egg-headed academics and their Board of Regents. Indeed in a January 28 interview on right-wing radio, Walker premediated the possibility of Regents raising faculty workloads: “I think you were right, your comments today on Right Wisconsin, that maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work. And this authority frees up the UW administration to make those sorts of requests, which I think are needed not only here but across the country.”

In considering the financial situation in Wisconsin, it is important to recognize that the current budget crisis is not, as in 2008, a systematic breakdown, but the product of political decisions made by Walker and the Republican legislature in Madison. The deficit has been manufactured by $800 million in tax cuts, mainly to property owners, that the state could not afford. Unfortunately, rather than highlight this fact and suggest that the easiest way to get out of this budget crisis would be to roll back (if only temporarily) the tax cuts instituted in Walker’s first term, our University System leaders have accepted that deficit, and the reduced University funding that it has prompted, as a given, a natural fact like Lake Michigan or the North Woods. There seems to be no effort to be proactive, to try to control or at least shape the narrative to counter Walker’s anticipated (and widely forecasted) budget announcement on February 3.

UW System president Ray Cross is doing little or nothing to combat the dominant narrative in the media, which is to say the Walker administration’s narrative. Locally our Chancellor’s stance has mainly been to prepare to deal with the massive and devastating cuts that are coming down the pike, preparing to address the situation in more detail when the specifics become known on February 3.  And even though it does not look good for UWM, there are many people in Madison who feel that they will benefit from this shift to a public authority, especially if they are given the opportunity to set their own tuition rates. Being free from the state HR and purchasing systems and being able to follow the Michigan model in raising out-of-state tuition and increasing out-of-state students, Madison should eventually do quite well financially, although like University of Michigan they will less and less serve as a public institution serving the people of their state. But in the short run, these draconian budget cuts will be impossible to accommodate without cutting hundreds of part-time and full-time faculty and staff. Indeed UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has said explicitly that there would be no way to absorb such a dramatic revenue cut without “laying off” employees in every one of her units, particularly on the educational side of the university.

Most disturbingly, System President Cross has painted the proposal as something of a bargain or negotiation, in which the State gives the University System autonomy “in exchange” for rolling back state funding of the System to 1998 levels and providing guaranteed funding from sales tax revenue, albeit starting with a budget cut back to 1998 levels. Cross responded to the proposal to make the UW System a public authority in adocument from the Office of the President released on January 26. The document is full of unsubstantiated assertions about financial benefits gained from public authority status. There appears to have been no research conducted on whether this will indeed be true, no debate or discussion among faculty, staff, and students about whether this is a change worth pursuing.

In the document Cross begins by accepting the Walker claim that these budget cuts to the system have been “dictated” by the “large state budget shortfall.” He writes: “Looking ahead, a large state budget shortfall dictates that the UW System will be receiving a sizeable funding cut.  This follows significant cuts over the last three budgets as well as a continuation of the current tuition freeze for the upcoming biennium. The UW System expects a $300 million cut over the 2015‐17 biennium.” As I have noted, this shortfall doesn’t “dictate” a funding cut; Walker and his allies dictate that. The current budget shortfall is a direct consequence of recent property tax cuts that the state had no way to pay for.

In welcoming the new freedoms of a public authority, Cross then glosses over the hundreds (if not thousands) of people who will lose their jobs to accommodate these cuts as posing “difficult and significant choices” that will be compensated for in the long run by making the UW System “more nimble and more responsive,” demonstrating a true insensitivity to the people who make Wisconsin’s universities work and the students they serve: “To manage these cuts, the UW System and its institutions will be forced to make difficult and significant choices in the short term…. In the longer term, the flexibilities granted through the authority and the consistency generated by the dedicated, sustainable funding source will help make the UW System a stronger, more nimble and more responsive higher educational system for generations to come.”

His attempt to reassure system faculty, staff, and students that tenure and shared governance will be protected raises as many questions as it answers. He writes: “Shared governance and tenure–two principles that are critical to delivering a high‐quality education–will be managed by the Board of Regents through board policy rather than by the legislature through statute. This is the standard among many other state higher education systems.” Note that Cross does not say that tenure and shared governance will be “protected” but that they will be “managed” by the governor-appointed Board of Regents. This “management” by the Regents is fundamentally weaker than the current statutory protections in Wisconsin’s Chapter 36. What Cross (and all UW System leaders) should be advocating for, if the move to a public authority must go through, is that the statutory protections of Chapter 36 be imported into a new Chapter 37, which will form the basis of the transformation of the UW System into a public authority. Anything less makes such protections subject to the whims of an appointed, not elected, Board of Regents, which represents a de facto power shift from the legislative to the executive branch of state government, a de facto weakening of local control. (Thanks to Aneesh Aneesh for this observation.)

Finally, it is important to note that while Wisconsin may be the first state to corporatize its university system as a public authority, it is unlikely to be the last. In a Republican Party committed to privatizing education at all levels, from K-16 and beyond, what happens in Wisconsin will be closely watched—and if successful, emulated in statehouses across the nation. The clever combination of granting “freedom” and “autonomy” to University leaders while simultaneously slashing even further the obligations of state governments to fund public higher education, will be a centerpiece of Walker’s presidential campaign and a model for Republican governors nationwide to consolidate power in their states.

To conclude, I would invoke a Biblical analogy I have used elsewhere to criticize the UW System’s participation in Scott Walker’s online flexible degrees.  If these proposed changes succeed, Ray Cross will have sold the University of Wisconsin System’s birthright to Scott Walker for less than a mess of pottage, and is likely to go down in the history of public higher education as a modern-day Esau, the System President on whose watch a once-respected public University System was reduced to a second-rate “public-benefit corporation.”