• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tuesday, February 24, 2015
By Lenora Hanson, Elsa Noterman, and Eleni Schirmer University of Wisconsin, Madison

Chris here: many states are now maintaining higher ed austerity or carrying on cuts in the teeth of the economy's recovery. Louisiana is one extreme example, and Wisconsin recently became another.  Budget deficits alone don't explain Wisconsin's cuts, as UW-Milwaukee professor Richard Grusin has pointed out in his analyses, so the next question is what does explain it? Further, what is the role of public university systems' top brass in creating the current climate?  This essay considers the latter question in the Wisconsin case.

*  *  *
The University of Wisconsin System administration and the campus chancellors have sent a clear message to the state Capitol that the proposed 13 percent cuts to the System are too big. Though this vocal opposition differs from that of previous UW administrators, as Republicans legislators have eagerly pointed out, the budget cuts come attached to a proposal which both past and present UW administrators have actively sought -- the transformation of the UW System into a public authority.

Despite inveighing against the magnitude of the cuts presented in the proposed 2015-2017 budget, system administrators have long campaigned for "public authority" status. They recognize the cuts as a “DEAL” with the state in exchange for what they call the ‘flexibilities’ of the public authority model.  This desire explains why no UW System Chancellor has, to our knowledge, demanded that cuts to higher education be outright rejected. System President Ray Cross characterizes this as a deal for one simple reason: UW system budget cuts are an exchange for public authority status. As President Cross mentioned in the email he sent to system-wide chancellors before news of the cuts became public, the part of the budget that would make the university a public authority was an opportunity to be seized -- “something we might not get a shot at for another 20-30 years.” 

Why does the administration see this as an opportunity that must be seized? Because this deal positions the university to act like a corporate entity, equipped with the financial technologies to compete for market resources and top-paying ‘customers’ -- in the form of wealthy out-of-state students -- to fund its activities, rather than relying on highly regulated state investment while maintaining historic public access.  Though recent remarks by administrators attempt to distinguish the budget cuts from the public authority status, the System administration has been preparing to accept cuts in order to gain autonomy.

What Is a Public Authority?

What exactly is public authority? As administrators regularly remind us, and as evident from the language of the budget itself, the details and specifics are still largely unknown. Indeed, as one graduate student incisively asked of Vice-Chancellor of Finance and Administration, Darrell Bazzell, at a recent budget forum, “If we don’t know what exactly the public authority model contains, why do we want it?” While Wisconsin statutes do not provide a single definition or model of ‘public authority,’ the Governor’s state budget does assert that the public authority will increase the university administration’s ‘flexibility’ in each of these key areas:
(a) ability to set tuition rates unilaterally; (b) authority to set employee compensation and establish a personnel system; (c) control over managing all aspects, except bid letting, of construction projects funded with program revenues; (d) ability to conduct all aspects of construction projects funded with gifts and grants; (e) management of procurement and purchasing contracts; and (f) jurisdiction to negotiate student reciprocity agreements with Minnesota on behalf of the state.
In more direct language, the public authority will provide (1) the power to expand tuition revenue; (2) to have greater control over construction projects (both in development and issuing bonds); and (3) to have more control over employee compensation and the personnel system. The language above is not, as frequently described by the administration, a matter of gaining “flexibilities,” but rather, we suggest, of “hyper-extending” the already significant burdens on UW workers and students. It is these hyper-extensions that are the priorities of system administrators, who are part of a new administrative class attempting to increase access to tuition and student loans, which subsidize new construction projects, at the same time it reduces labor costs through outsourcing, attacks labor unions, and increases managerial power.
We can get a good sense of what “public authority” might look like at UW-Madison only by cobbling together statements made by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank at recent forums on our campus. Those statements suggest that while the System administration is somehow convinced that a public authority model will make the System more financially efficient and competitive, they know next to nothing about its impact on governance and diversity on our campuses. To wit, Chancellor Blank has noted that while Diversity Programs are important, they would not remain untouched by the cuts-for-public-authority exchange. And although UW System President Ray Cross originally framed the pursuit of public authority as a protection of shared governance in emails to system chancellors, Chancellor Blank has instead, perhaps more honestly, made the ambiguous statement that, “I very much hope there will be no effect whatsoever on shared governance.” Chancellor Blank’s statement is likely more honest, we suggest, because the public authority could change shared governance by moving things like shared governance, tenure, guaranteed support for underrepresented and minority students, and other items out of state statute and into the Board of Regents' jurisdiction.

We of course know that the members of the Board of Regents are neither democratically elected nor representative of individual campuses; rather, they are appointed by the Governor to serve seven-year terms, and will preside over the entire System. Should the Governor’s Board of Regents choose to write the above items into policy for the System they could do so, but as Blank’s wavering statement acknowledges, we currently have no real sense of how those items will be rewritten, if at all. Nor would UW systems workers or students have any ability to impose democratic accountability or recourse upon the appointed Regents.

While the UW administration verbally supports protections for students and workers, this does not necessarily ensure material support, especially in a context of declining resources. When fielding questions about protection for programs that sustain underrepresented and minority students after the transition to Board of Regents control, Vice-Chancellor Bazzell flatly stated that UW-Madison has a strong recent track record of support for diversity programming. Yet recent evidence shows that, especially after the 2011 budget cuts, admission for students of color, first generation college students, and Wisconsin residents declined, while high-paying international students and students of alumni rose.

We can also look at the example of the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic (UWHC), which -- previously a state-funded entity -- became managed by a hospital authority though the 1995 biennial budget, meaning that it would no longer receive state support and have to fund its daily operations through its generated revenues. One of the most significant effects of the UW Hospital’s shift to public authority status was its loss of collective bargaining for its employees. This pattern repeated when the UW System administration refused to include the option for faculty to unionize in the current public authority proposal.

Exchanging Cuts for Flexibilities: A System Tradition

UW-Madison administration has been silent on the explicit connections that exist between the budget and the public authority, and have rejected any suggestion that they are willing to take one for the other. For example, Vice Chancellor Bazzell recently argued that trying to understand the budget cuts in relation to the public authority is a “false construction.”

Yet Vice-Chancellor Bazzell’s statement ignores clear connections to the previous, ill-fated proposal for a public authority. That 2011 proposal, known as the New Badger Partnership (NBP), aimed to give UW-Madison complete autonomy as a public authority, breaking it away from UW-System as a way to protect UW-Madison from further budget cuts. It was a product of secretive discussions between the Governor and then-Chancellor Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, and revealed a connection between university administrative lobbying and Republican-driven austerity measures. Yet, Vice-Chancellor Bazzell attempted to re-write that history in last week’s forum, suggesting that the 2011 NBP and public authority mission was externally imposed on UW by Gov. Walker, not, as was the actual case, co-fashioned by UW administrators and state legislators. Indeed, from what we have seen, not a single communication, either internal or external, even acknowledges that a previous public authority proposal existed.

Yet there are at least three good reasons to believe that the proposed 2015-2017 budget cuts and public authority are inseparable, and that administration’s struggle to gain the latter has been absent a concern that it would likely produce the former.

First, after the NBP failed in 2011, UW-Madison and other system schools happily accepted a block grant from the state, as opposed to General Program Revenue (GPR) enumerated by fund type, in order to get the chance to rewrite their own HR and personnel policies. Not incidentally, the block grant allocation also required modifying state statute 20.285 to deregulate previous restrictions on how tuition can and cannot be spent, and thus freed up the system in the use of that revenue stream. At the time, critics expressed concern that a block grant was one step in the direction of drastically limited or even ultimately non-existent state contributions, which is unfortunately what we are seeing this year.

Second, in 2012, the Task Force on Restructuring noted in a presentation to System leaders that, “WI was one of the highest regulated universities in the country” and recommended that the System gain greater control over things like building, procurement and compensation, all the while never expressing concern in documents that this might lead to crippling cuts. Much like the infamous Act 10, the redrafting of HR policies has weakened worker protections put in place by unions, such as seniority rules, and has created a merit pay system that campus unions have vocally opposed. Third, and most recently, departments and programs on UW-Madison’s campus were asked last year to run 2/4/6 percent budget reduction tests in anticipation of cuts that were never contested by the administration.

It thus appears that the UW-System administration has seen the cuts as an opportunity on which they could capitalize.  In the context of this ongoing university campaign, Gov. Walker's proposed exchange of "public authority" status for cuts is not the result of a genuine budget crisis but of years of the UW-System actively trading off cuts for piecemeal autonomy. This helps explain why the messaging coming out of UW-Madison is not that we cannot afford cuts at all, but that the current proposed cuts are simply too big to be absorbed immediately. In her first address to Faculty Senate,  UW-Madison Chancellor Blank implied as much when she stated that, “We cannot do [the cuts] in one year; it is not possible,” and that “I wouldn’t say this is an utter disaster for the university, but we have some serious changes to make in our operations and all of you are going to feel that in some way or another.”

Though we recognize that Chancellor Blank’s statements deviate from the talking points deployed by previous Chancellors and administration, intolerance for cuts has not been her position, as evidenced by her budget reduction test. By conducting this exercise, Chancellor Blank effectively trained the university’s workers to accept and prepare for cuts. In this sense, Chancellor Blank herself failed to organize campus and the broader UW community to fight back against cuts that are widely acknowledged as “self-inflicted” wounds produced by years of tax breaks for the wealthy. From an employee’s point of view, what exactly is “too much?” The Governor’s eight percent cuts or the ‘necessary’ six percent previously proposed by the administration?

A Policy of Silence

“Let me know of any way I can be helpful (which can include keeping my mouth shut---- Smile)
--email from Dennis Shields (Chancellor, UW Platteville) to Ray Cross (UW System President)

Perhaps even more troubling than the UW Administration’s ahistorical representation of the proposed budget cuts to the university is their attempt to insulate the biennial budget from politics at all. This has become most evident in the administration’s refusal to engage in questions about the budget that are “political” in nature -- namely about the actual causes and motivations of the supposed budget cuts. Though the university will engage in long-term discussions about the impacts of the cuts and how they will be distributed, students and faculty have regularly been told by UW administration representatives that the discussion of the origins of the cuts -- namely the state’s perplexing revenue system -- is prohibitively political.

For instance, at a recent forum for graduate students, Vice Chancellor Bazzell stated that he was not at all concerned about having a public university funded through sales tax -- a mercenarily regressive form of taxation -- if it allocated sufficient amounts of revenue. This shift in funding sources will present an aggressively anti-public investment source, whereby those in the state with the least resources will pay disproportionately more for a university that is increasingly unaffordable to them. The Administration’s flagrant disregard for the sources of its funding -- not simply the quantity -- present a chilling and short-sighted strategy of the university as a public institution.

The depoliticization of the proposed budget is also evident in the administration’s discouragement of protest as a form of political participation. On the fourth anniversary of the now-symbolic February 14 "I Heart UW" Rally that sparked the Wisconsin capitol Occupation in 20144, over 200 students, faculty, staff and community members below-freezing temperatures to protest Scott Walker's recent proposal to defund higher education.

But UW-Madison's Twitter page, which was busy issuing valentines to UW, gave no hint that active resistance was begin organized on its campus that day, despite its subsequent attention on the front page of the New York Times and in the Washington Post. This is perhaps because, as disclosed to members of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) Executive Board in a meeting last week and to the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants’ Association (MGAA) members in an email (see their video response), UW administrators are discouraging protests and rallies to the budget proposal. Indeed, UW Regent Margaret Farrow criticized the “emotional” nature of the protests, invoking language loaded with gendered and racialized norms about “acceptable” forms of dissent.

Thus, a troubling and largely unacknowledged outcome of the recent budget proposal has been the request for a respectability politics--a politics in which entire campuses shall support the administration’s position, and perform a consensus by acting like ‘good’ citizens and workers. In the context of the UW system's financial technologies, consensus is a disciplining project in that it demands compliance with an employer that is already assessing where to cut jobs. This disciplining surfaced in 2011, when the UW system gained the “flexibility” to develop a new HR or personnel system that then led to the suggestion that it adopt a “behavior-based selection process” as part of employee recruitment and assessment.  Respectability politics reinforces a system that is moving away from defending its employees' academic freedom toward hiring workers ready and willing to be managed without question.

To be blunt, it appears that the UW administration actively seeks a form of management flexibility that requires silent employees whose jobs are consistently on the line.  The published email communications from system President Cross contained a message from Madison Chancellor Blank about UW-Madison’s University Committee
We'll see what pops out publicly by tomorrow morning. I have my faculty exec comm [sic] committed to letting negotiations move forward without public outcry, but I don't know if they contain certain elements of the faculty.
Chancellor Blank clearly favors a passive faculty even though this passivity helped convince Gov Walker and other state politicians that 13 percent state funding cuts could succeed.  To reinforce passivity, some now claim that the budget cuts derive not from the "public authority" proposal that originated with the UW-Madison administration and not with Gov. Walker, but from those who have been outspoken against Walker and UW administration's privatization efforts.

President Cross’ messaging to the Chancellors suggested that the deal is by no means settled. “Please know," he wrote,  "that any deal or potential agreement could fall through at any moment. But, this is an opportunity to assume the offensive and we are putting a plan in front of the Gov and the Ldrs [sic] – in concept.”  This comment should be taken as an important reminder that this “opportunity” is still, at least for now, a precarious fantasy that can move forward only through the  silence of those who will suffer the most from it.