Has the Time Come for an Expression of No Confidence in UW System Administrators?

By Richard Grusin

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Gospel of Matthew 7:15, King James Version)

Has the time come for an expression of no confidence in University of Wisconsin System administrators? If so, such an expression must begin at the top with System President Ray Cross. But it should perhaps then go on to include all those Regents and Chancellors who continue to advocate the neoliberal ideology on higher education, preferring efficiencies and flexibilities at any cost—even if they are detrimental to the research, education, and access missions of higher education. For no matter what remnants of these missions survive after the conversion to a public authority, one thing is certain: the overriding logic of the University of Wisconsin System will have formally changed from a state-supported agency governed by the Wisconsin Idea to a public-service corporation whose first goal is to survive economically not to thrive academically.

The predominant narrative in the media and on campuses across Wisconsin pits the evil Republican Governor and his legislative allies against the UW System, defenders of the now restored Wisconsin Idea.  In particular this narrative has focused on the devastating proposed punitive cuts of $300 million, the largest in the history of the University System, which come on top of four years of cuts from Walker and the Republican legislature. Unfortunately this narrative misrepresents the role that System President Cross, the UW Chancellors, and the Board of Regents have played in advocating for the conversion of the system to a public authority without having seriously investigated the costs and consequences of such a conversion.

As I argued in this blog last week, Cross has been collaborating with the Governor’s staff for some time in expanding his power and authority from being President of a UW System operating under the constraints of Chapter 36 to President of a public-benefit corporation, the UW System Public Authority. Cross was in fact actively engaged in privatizing the UW System even before he was selected by Scott Walker as UW System President. In his previous position as Chancellor of UW-Colleges and UW-Extension, Cross spearheaded the System’s creation of the University of Wisconsin Flexible Option program, which intensified the system’s ongoing shift from a state agency operating under the ideals of the Wisconsin Idea to one operating primarily to develop the workforce in Wisconsin.

In a November 2012 blog post, I argued that the Flexible Option degree–which will not be formally distinguishable from a degree obtained by a student who spent a full four years (or more) at a public Wisconsin university–diminished the value of a University of Wisconsin degree and threatened the core mission of the university: “By offering college credit for ‘on-the-job training, military experience or previous coursework,’ ‘including the growing number of MOOCs [taught] through universities such as Harvard and MIT,’ these flexible degree programs threaten to supplant the tenured faculty that make up the core of a university’s identity, replacing them with part-time, precarious laborers, which will work in the short run to provide cost-saving in salary and benefits but in the long run to devastate the public research university as we know it.”

A January 2014 post on the UW Flexible Option blog promotes Cross’s leadership role in “turning dreams into reality” by giving Flexible Option students “the ability to save time, save money, and more quickly reach the day when they can achieve their personal and professional goals.” Sadly, under the current leadership of the UW System, the first priority of higher education is economic, Wisconsin Idea or not. Indeed in the words of former System President Kevin Reilly, who chose Cross to lead the program, the Flexible Degree Option is “the 21st century face of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Unfortunately the decision to design and implement these flexible degrees was made in the absence of robust campus and system-wide discussions about the wisdom of doing so, discussions in which faculty, students, staff, and mid-level administrators would have been able to address questions about the efficacy of such flexible degrees and of their consequences and implications for all facets of the University of Wisconsin System. Similarly there has been a total lack of discussion about the move to a public authority, which the public did not hear of until January 26, just one week before Governor Walker’s budget address. Although the public authority still must go through the legislative sausage-making process, the lack of any serious push-back or resistance to this idea from the UW System, UW Chancellors, or the Board of Regents makes it all but certain that at the end of the current legislative session the UW System will have been converted from a state agency to a public authority.

With that in mind, here are a series of questions that must be asked of System President Ray Cross, all UW Chancellors, and the Board of Regents. Failure to receive satisfactory answers to these questions, and to receive them soon, should be cause for expressions of no confidence in the UW System leaders from across Wisconsin’s universities.

  • Can we afford a public authority? Where are the studies showing how much money will be saved by a public authority? More immediately, how much will such a transition cost? Some estimates of the possible cost put it in the tens or even hundreds of millions.
  • Why oppose collective bargaining? Why did the UW System lobby against the proposal—in an earlier draft of Scott Walker’s budget bill—to grant UW faculty and academic staff the right to unionize and collectively bargain for wages, the rights other public employees have?
  • How will citizens be represented in the new system? The UW System Chief Executive and the Board of Regents have tremendously increased powers and responsibilities over the UW System under the proposed public authority. Given that, what rationale is there for retaining the composition and mode of gubernatorial appointment of the Board of Regents, which removes accountability to the citizens of Wisconsin?
  • What kind of deal is this? Why has the UW System chosen to accept budget cuts in exchange for autonomy rather than lobbying for things like progressive taxes that would contribute to greater state funding for higher education? Why hasn’t anyone in the UW System been explicit about the fact that state funding will come in the form of tuition increases and taxes that fall disproportionately on low-income residents?

Obviously there are many more questions that could (and I hope will) be asked.  But the fact that these questions are not being asked of the proposed public authority by those who are supposed to be advocating for the system, and against the politically motivated interests of our governor and the Republican legislature, should lead us to begin to ask one other question: When will the time come for expressions of no confidence from the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Wisconsin System?

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About rgrusin

I am an Academic Entrepreneur and Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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