By Richard Grusin
From the moment word began to leak out in late January about the proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System, anger among university faculty, staff, and students has been directed mainly at Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. And for good reason. After all, as recently as last Fall, the UW System had been preparing a request for a $96 million increase in the state appropriation over the next biennium, and campus administrators had been led to believe that such a request would be seriously entertained by the governor. And it was the governor, taking his cue from the Koch-funded ALEC’s playbook, who was seen to be behind the privatization of the UW System by transforming it from a state agency to a public authority, otherwise known as a “public-benefit corporation.” Once the governor’s full budget request was made public in Senate Bill 21, anger among the university community and across the state erupted over Walker’s attempt to rewrite the “Wisconsin Idea” by removing the ideals of public service and the search for truth from the University System’s mission. Clearly Scott Walker was to blame for what he referred to in the press as “Act 10 for the UW System”–alluding to his successful effort in 2011 to vitiate public-employee unions and slash the budgets of public K-12 education in Wisconsin.
But as revealed in emails from January 5 and 6, 2015–released under a freedom of information act by the UW System to the Wisconsin State Journal–and as I first suggested on January 28, the blame for the $300 million cut and the creation of a new public authority to manage the University of Wisconsin system, must fall equally if not more substantially on the shoulders of System President Ray Cross. As an article in this morning’s Journal reports, Cross allegedly pushed for the public authority out of “fear” that what he called “the big three”–Walker, Speaker Robin Vos, and Senate Majority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald–were planning to remove tenure and shared governance from their statutory protection under Wisconsin’s Chapter 36. Thus rather than choose to fight such a change, which Cross has steadfastly maintained he opposes, he decided to offer the state a “deal” in which the System would become a public authority in exchange for significant, although apparently at that point yet to be specified, budget cuts.
As witnessed in the widespread opposition to Walker’s evisceration of the Wisconsin Idea, however, support for the University System, and especially its flagship campus in Madison, cuts across party lines. It seems almost certain that attempts to remove tenure and shared governance would have prompted similar concerns about the devastating impacts on University of Wisconsin System campuses. In retrospect, it might seem that Cross badly miscalculated the power of “the big three” to make dramatic changes to the proud and longstanding traditions of the University of Wisconsin and committed the University System to a deal that could have been avoided. Or did he choose instead to take advantage of this manufactured crisis to create a public authority that both he and “the big three” were eager to put into place?
The emails released to the Wisconsin State Journal suggest that this was indeed the case. Indeed in an email to the UW System Chancellors, Cross reports on his January 5 meeting with the System’s “Faculty Reps,” in which he laid out the need for preemptive action in the face of the “risks” posed to tenure and shared governance by “the big three”: “The meeting with the Faculty Reps went very well. We focused on the ‘risks’ associated with shared governance and tenure being in existing state statutes. I also explained that I no longer felt that we could preserve these critically important values as codified in law. We risk having them re-written by non-academics within the legislature and that risk has been elevated in recent weeks. I told them that I would be supportive, as would Board leadership, of bringing existing language (and practice for that matter) into future Board policy.” Reading this passage from Cross’s email, it is not immediately clear if he in fact believes in these “risks” or if he is following a tried and true formula of premediating the fear of future harm as the basis for action in the present, a formula we have seen in terms of national security over and over again since 9/11.
Given a January 6 email to UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, it seems clear that Cross is indeed using fear and risk to persuade his Faculty Reps to support the conversion to a public authority. He tells Mone that, although converting the UW System to a public authority “will not be easy and we will get consider [sic] push back from our faculty and staff,” “this is something we might not get a shot at for another 20-30 years.” Following the blueprint of creative destruction, Cross realizes that the crisis posed by the purported threat to tenure and shared governance should not be allowed to go to waste. “Please know 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 – in concept. Let’s see what they can sell and agree to. We shall see.” One month later we have in fact seen what “the Gov and the Ldrs” have agreed to–a $300 million budget cut in exchange for giving Ray Cross the public authority he so dearly coveted. While Cross sold the public authority to his Faculty Reps as necessary to preserve tenure and shared governance, it is worth looking at what he really thinks he got for his $300 million.
Earlier I had come to the conclusion that Cross had been fleeced in this deal by Walker–sacrificing $300 million from the System budget in exchange for a public authority managed by a governor-appointed Board of Regents. Looked at in this way, and I think this is still a valid way to look at it, the deal was a win-win for the governor, whose executive authority over the System was strengthened, and a lose-lose for the System, which would no longer be protected by statutory authority. But from the beginning Cross and other system chancellors (notably Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank and UWM’s Mone) have made the case that the public authority would provide savings, flexibilities, and efficiencies that in the long run would save the System money. Of course most of these carry with them negative consequences, such as the flexibility to fire faculty and staff or to outsource campus services currently performed by university employees. Most dramatically, as pointed out earlier this week by Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noterman, among the gains to the System and its larger campuses is the ability to borrow money based upon student tuition as collateral. Thus, while the System FAQ disingenuously claims that “It’s in nobody’s interest to simply increase tuition once the authority is in place,” Hanson and Noterman persuasively argue that this is in fact precisely in the interest of a System (or its campuses) looking to borrow money to fund new construction projects. Of course, here as elsewhere, the interests of the System are not coincident with the interests of its faculty, staff, or students, but in fact opposed to them.
Which leads me, finally, to what I take to be the real personal interest in making this deal, the dramatic increase in power not only for the Board of Regents but more crucially for the President of the UW System. Under Senate Bill 21 Ray Cross would become the first chief executive officer of the new Public Authority. Given the tremendous autonomy being transferred from legislative oversight to the public authority in all matters relating to personnel, academics, finance, and facilities, the President of the University of Wisconsin Public Authority is a much more powerful position than the President of the University of Wisconsin System, who finds himself hampered by statutory regulations. As I have noted elsewhere, virtually every matter relating to the governance of the University System in Chapter 36 will be repealed under the provisions of SB 21. And while the Board of Regents of the Public Authority and its CEO are free to reinstate every single one of the items repealed by SB 21, they are equally free not to, making tenure and shared governance, for example, the foundations of higher education in the United States, matters of noblesse oblige.
Not such a bad deal, is it, for a man who would be king?
[ADDENDUM–2/12/15: To explain further the collaboration between System President Ray Cross and the governing Republican party in the creation of the public authority, my colleague Aneesh Aneesh reminds us in a FB post that James Villa and John Yingling, the two individuals whom Cross consults before emailing the Chancellors about his meeting with the Faculty Reps “are Republican Party operatives holding important positions in the UW system. Villa was the governor’s former campaign aide and one-time chief of staff during Walker’s stint at Milwaukee County executive. Villa is now our vice president for university relations at the University of Wisconsin System. And Yingling? Yingling, the owner of a management consulting company in Milwaukee, was co-chair of the Search and Screen Committee for the university relations job offered to James Villa.” Villa, who earns $178,000 in his recently created position, also served as chief of staff for suburban Milwaukee Republican Alberta Darling, a key ally of the governor especially on matters relating to education policy.]