Foxes in the Henhouse: The Republican Takeover of the University of Wisconsin System

Friday, May 29, 2015, will go down as a dark day in the history of the University of Wisconsin System. On that day the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature issued its Omnibus Spending Motion for the University of Wisconsin System. This motion would get rid of Scott Walker’s proposal to make the System a public authority; restore most of Chapter 36, which governs the UW System, to state statute; and “reduce” Walker’s proposed $300 million budget cut to a still draconian $250 million. Despite the words of gratitude pouring from the mouths of UW leaders in response to this “reduction,” we need to make one thing perfectly clear. The Joint Finance Committee did not “reduce” a budget cut to the UW System, it “imposed” a $250 million budget cut on the System. As evidenced in its decision to undo Walker’s proposed cut to K-12 education, the JFC had within its purview to do the same for the UW System.

Even more maliciously than cutting the UW budget, the JFC motion weakens shared governance in fundamental ways, most notably in redefining such governance as explicitly “subordinate” to campus chancellors. And in perhaps the most bizarre, but also the most directly anti-faculty, move, the JFC motion eliminates tenure from state law at precisely the same time that it would institute into statute detailed procedures for justifying and implementing the firing of tenured faculty for other than cause or financial emergency (this latter move was made in the event that the Board of Regents reinstate, as its leaders claim it will, some diminished form of tenure at its June 4-5 meeting in Milwaukee). With one omnibus motion the Joint Finance Committee levied a huge budget cut on the UW System, eliminated tenure, made it easier for tenured faculty to be fired, and weakened dramatically faculty, staff, and student roles in shared governance.

Pretty much lost in the shock of this catastrophic devastation wreaked upon the UW System was the way in which Friday’s JFC motion further institutionalizes the restructuring of the relationship between the governing Republican party and the UW System. It is hardly an accident that in the midst of this assault on the UW System, key UW leaders and members of the Board of Regents were careful to make one very similar point: that the JFC’s actions signaled a “new relationship” between the university and state government. In relatively quick succession over the course of Friday afternoon, System President Ray Cross, Regent Vice-President Rebecca Millner, and Regent President Mike Falbo issued official statements underscoring the new relationship between the UW System and the Republican-controlled legislature.

  • First Cross: “I know this has been a difficult budget with many tough decisions. The work of the committee illustrates a willingness to open a new dialogue and partnership between the legislature and the UW System. I am committed to working to build on this foundation to ensure a strong UW System for the future that continues our long tradition of serving students, communities and the state.”
  • Next Cross and Millner together: “Overall, we are pleased with the substantial reduction of our budget cut and the provision of additional flexibilities, and we are confident our new partnership with the legislature is focused on the future.”
  • Finally, Falbo, whose authoritarian worldview lays out most fully and most obsequiously the terms of this new “partnership”: “We appreciate the Joint Finance Committee’s action today and the spirit of collaboration we have developed with its members and the legislature. With President Cross’s leadership, this new sense of partnership has helped us get to where we are today. It has also set a new standard and tone for how we can best serve our students, our institutions, the state and taxpayers in the future. This renewed commitment to work together will get results and lead to a stronger university that is even more aligned with the needs of Wisconsin.”

In the unlikely event, reader, that you might still be convinced by these lockstep statements of gratitude that this new relationship was indeed a partnership among equals, you should be disabused by a look at how the Chancellors of the UW’s only two doctoral-granting research universities were also compelled to defer to the authority of the ruling political class in Wisconsin. Like the statements of Cross, Millner, and Falbo, the uncanny similarity between the statements of gratitude by Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone makes it clear that they are reading from the same page.

  • First Blank: “The Joint Committee on Finance was presented with a very difficult budget. We appreciate the members’ willingness to work with us to make the proposed cuts less challenging for the university. We are grateful that the committee was able to reduce the cut by $50 million and provide funding to cover increased fringe benefit costs. The steps toward flexibilities in procurement and building projects proposed by the Joint Finance Committee are welcome and should allow us to function more efficiently.”
  • Now Mone: “We appreciate the willingness of the Joint Finance Committee to reduce the size of the cut and to provide additional funding for the costs of fringe benefits to our employees. It is also our hope that the flexibilities provided in the budget bill by the Committee will benefit us in coming years.”

It is surely impossible to believe from the nearly identical phrasing of these official statements that these are the thoughts and words of independent academic leaders, whose positions put them at the pinnacle of shared governance on their campus to represent the combined interests of their university’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Rather these are the statements of Republican functionaries showing their “subordination” to their leaders in Madison. From the Walker-appointed Board of Regents to the Regent-appointed System President to the President-appointed Chancellors, the daisy-chain of Republican power now extends to every campus in the University of Wisconsin System.

This extension of state government into the ranks of campus administration represents a dangerous restructuring of the traditional historical separation of political and academic interests. In the not-so-distant past, the System President, and especially the Chancellors, represented the academic interests of their campuses, serving as the highest spokesmen for shared campus governance among faculty, staff, students, and academic administrators, who were historically drawn from the ranks of faculty. This new relationship between the UW System and the ruling Republican party has now eroded whatever remaining distance there was between state government and state universities, turning the university itself into an agent of the Republican party.

Thanks to a secret pact with their Republican overlords in Madison, the leaders of the University of Wisconsin System have now relocated the increasingly hierarchical relationship between politics and the academy into the very structure of the university. Under the “new partnership” touted by Falbo, Millner, and Cross, the system president and the chancellor no longer represent the interests of shared governance to the government, but rather carry out the wishes of the government as administrators of top-down, not bottom-up or shared, governance.

In the spirit of George Orwell, here are three slogans the University of Wisconsin System might use to describe its “new partnership” with the Republican party: academic freedom is slavery; shared governance is subordination; and tenure is the right to be fired.


About rgrusin

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