In Praise of Scott Walker—An Annotated Response to a Wall Street Journal News Story

Colleges are usually at the forefront of radical politics [The word “radical” suggests extreme and abrupt change driven by ideological rather than practical concerns. These days there is much more political radicalism on the Far Right than anywhere on the Left], but when it comes to their own privileges they become feudal empires [Loaded language that is especially hypocritical coming from the Right, which has advanced policies based on the premise that income inequality is not a problem and wealth is a birthright for the select few.]. Behold the revolt in the Wisconsin state university system over Governor Scott Walker ’s appeal for modest accountability. [Mixed metaphors—How does a feudal empire revolt? It cannot both represent the entrenched status quo and be revolting against it? “Modest accountability” is a facile euphemism for “putting the screws to” higher education in the state.]

In Mr. Walker’s recent biennial budget proposal, he joined the national debate on higher education. [He didn’t open any avenues for debate; he simply declared what he intended to impose on public colleges and universities in his state.] The Governor and potential presidential candidate wants to extend a 2013-2015 tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin for two more years, and then slightly reduce state aid [How is a $300 million reduction in state support a slight reduction, especially when it follows on a series of previous, substantial reductions?] in exchange for more independence for the system. [If the institutions cannot even set their own tuition rates in response to continued draconian reductions in state support, in what sense of they able to exercise “greater independence”?]

UW is now a formal state agency, which operates under the same regulations that apply to the rest of the bureaucracy on worker compensation, bonding for building projects, procurement, contracting and much else [The favorite targets of the Right—workers compensation and rules on how state money can be spent for supplies and services. The people proposing deregulation are counting on no one tracking what occurs several years down the road. Privatization simply does not lead to lower costs for public services; it does, however, lead to lower pay for public employees and an erosion of local tax bases because those monies are going to higher compensation for managers and shareholders’ dividends.] Mr. Walker would spin off UW as a quasi-public authority that is out of this government saddle. [Another mixed metaphor—how does one “spin off . . . out of a saddle? Are we supposed to imagine the state government is a mechanical bull? And if so, isn’t Wisconsin more than a little north for that sort of figure to be appropriate?] He would also convert state aid that is now filled with earmarks for specific programs into a clean, inflation-adjusted block grant that UW could spend at its discretion. [How can one not suspect that the things for which the money is earmarked are the real target here? That is, Walker cuts state support until the institutions themselves have little choice but to cut allocations for programs that he himself wishes to target, largely for ideological reasons.]

The UW system has sought such academic freedom [A deliberate misuse of the phrase “academic freedom,” which Walker has already stated that he would like to eliminate, along with shared governance—that is, a none-too-subtle attempt to muddy the waters about what academic freedom actually is and means, so that it sounds as if it might be something that the colleges and universities themselves would like to eliminate.] from the state for a generation, though apparently Mr. Walker still isn’t sufficiently reverential [More loaded language—making it sound as if the higher ed leadership has asked Walker to come crawling to them, when in fact he is trying to force them to come crawling to him.]. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and other administrators are lobbying the legislature to reject the block grant because it is about $300 million less than UW’s two-year budget base [Again, why is this massive reduction presented as if it is small change?]. They’re also organizing protests among faculty, students and other activists, some of whom showed up last week at Mr. Walker’s home. [When citizens organize in opposition to the Right, it is always presented as some sinister activity, managed by some cabal of nefarious plotters. But when corporations sponsor rallies for the Far Right, it is presented simply as grassroots democracy at work—simply as good people exercising their God-given rights in this democracy.]

The demonstrators even object to Mr. Walker’s suggestion that UW’s “Wisconsin idea” mission include a goal “to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs.” This is supposedly anti-intellectual, though perhaps authority figures should tell the kids majoring in social justice to prepare for the jobs they’ll need in the real world. [This frames as a minor suggestion Walker’s rejection of one of the underlying principles on which the unprecedented success of the American system of higher education has been built. Higher education is not vocational education, and this battle has been being fought for the last 150 years—since the last Gilded Age. Moreover, given that the average worker now entering the workforce is expected to change fields—not just jobs, but fields—a half-dozen times over his or her working life, how valuable is most very employment-targeted education going to be? Our economy is making thirty-year-olds into the equivalent of the fifty-year-old factory workers of a generation ago; the digital economy is rendering not just specific jobs but whole technologies obsolete at an ever-accelerating rate. The Wall Street Journal should know that employers are, in fact, increasingly asking for graduates with the skills associated with a traditional liberal arts education—oral and written communication skills, the ability to collaborate effectively, and critical thinking skills that allow one to adapt to ever evolving professional challenges. Social justice is, by the way, not an academic major. It is a value that anyone in a civilized society should work to promote and aspire to demonstrate.]

Their real grievance is Mr. Walker’s belief that higher-ed spending shouldn’t climb year after year and get passed off to taxpayers and students with ever-higher debt. The entitled academics pretend that universities are chamber orchestras that can’t improve productivity. [Another cheap shot at the arts—and a further extension of this series of mixed metaphors; I have a limited musical background, but I don’t think that feudal societies had chamber orchestras; I think that those came somewhat later.] But you can tell a college administrator is dissembling when he claims there is no fat left to trim, especially in as large an organization as UW.

Mr. Walker’s $150 million one-year “cut” will be absorbed into a $6.098 billion system-wide operating budget for 2014-15. It amounts to a 12.7% reduction in state aid, but that is merely 2.5% of UW’s overall budget, most of which comes from other sources to support two full-service doctoral campuses, 11 four-year colleges, 13 two-year schools and an extension with offices in every county. [It is very misleading to look at a single year’s worth of reductions as if they are being made in an isolated way, rather than in the context of previous substantial cuts and announced future cuts.]

According to the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, UW also employs 15,100 full-time equivalent employees—42% of its workforce—who are called “academic staff.” The bureau defines them as “professional and administrative personnel other than faculty whose duties are primarily associated with higher education institutions or their administration,” and UW has one of them on payroll for every 10 enrolled student-equivalents. Some 59% work at the UW-Madison campus. [The Right is now talking about administrative bloat, but it is doing so as if the bloat has occurred in response to federal—that is, progressive—mandates. This argument conveniently ignores that the Right has been reducing regulations over the last four decades and that the demands to corporatize our colleges and universities has, as much as anything else, encouraged the growth of “management.” It is a dated business model, closer to what existed in the 1950s and 1960s, than what exists now in corporate America. But progressives have been saying for decades that colleges and universities are not corporations and that most of our administrators would not know how to run them like corporations even if they could be run in that manner. In any case, this concern on the Right about administrative bloat seems never to lead to any concerted action—that is, it seems a lot like the new concern on the Right about poverty.]

Mr. Walker is instead asking UW to set priorities, while providing the tools and flexibility to live within a budget. He wants to avoid what happened during the last state budget squeeze, under Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, when the state simply raised tuition by 18% on average in 2003-04, and again by 15% in 2004-05. [No one wants students to have to foot a larger proportion of the bill, but this description makes it sound that simply replacing lost state subsidies with tuition increases is the height of irresponsibility. In fact, it makes it sound as if the institutions were spending extravagantly at the expense of students, instead of simply trying to maintain the status quo.]

Thanks to the current tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates—the first in Wisconsin history—UW-Madison’s sticker price of $10,410 is below the Big Ten school average of $11,819. In an angry speech to the board of regents this month, Chancellor Blank seemed to view this lower cost as a problem. [You cannot sustain a world-class university, which UW-Madison has always been, on a frugal budget. The state is going to get a return from its flagship university that reflects its level of support. And this raises a larger question: Walker has had his way for some time now. Are the state’s finances still in such a sad state that these kinds of cuts are necessary? If so, what does that say about his management of Wisconsin’s economy? Walker is starting to sound more and more like the Bobby Jindal of the north, with both of them trying to out-Brownback the mess in Kansas.]

She said that if the freeze continues UW will fall to last among its regional peers. “We’re going to have to get further up toward the median in part to fill some of these budget holes and in part to reflect our market quality. I shouldn’t be the cheapest school in the Big Ten,” she said. Attention, freshmen: She used to be an economic adviser to President Obama in the Commerce Department. [This is a very cheap shot and a non-sequitur. It is reflective of the general pattern of vicious partisanship that has marked Walker’s entire tenure as governor—behavior that he has escalated even while blaming his opponents for their supposedly unaccountable vitriol. Yes, even a freshman could see through that rhetorical tactic.]

Ms. Blank added, or threatened, that “outside of state funding, the only thing you’re left with is tuition, that’s the one thing that you can increase fast when your state dollars go down fast.” Or she could place a call to the few college president reformers who are trying to modernize their institutions to make degrees cheaper but also more valuable.

*** Mitch Daniels is a good role model, having cut the cost of attending Purdue for two straight years since he became president in 2013. The former Indiana Governor’s search for efficiencies is legendary, including the dining hall and used furniture, and student debt among Boilermakers has fallen 18% in his tenure. Another is Dartmouth’s Phil Hanlon, who requires college departments to cut 1.5% of spending each year and spend it on something new. This annual reallocation clears out deadwood while encouraging innovation. [I have done several previous posts on Mitch Daniels’ supposed radical reforms. Most of the cuts have been much more trivial in the context of Purdue’s budget than Walker’s proposed cuts are in the context of UW’s budget. Moreover, despite Daniels’ expressed concern about administrative bloat, he has done nothing to address it.]

Mr. Walker has already infuriated the professoriate by proposing offhand that they cut costs by taking on an extra courseload a semester. If UW refuses to find this or other savings, he should next try to abolish tenure. [If the bulk of the waste is so obviously on the administrative side—because revenues have been shifted from instructional staffing and support to administrative positions and support staff—why should faculty workload be increased? There is no basis for this in this article. In actuality, the workloads of the declining percentage of faculty who are tenure track—their teaching loads, service expectations, and scholarly requirements—have been steadily increasing. Indeed, the service expectations have been increasing despite the administrative bloat and because so many courses are now being covered by adjunct faculty who work for the equivalent of minimum wage. Tenured faculty are better off than other faculty, but their working conditions are far from what they used to be. It’s the equivalent of the argument that people with college degrees are doing better than those without degrees: everyone in the middle-class is actually doing worse, but those with degrees are just doing less worse. The attack on tenure is like the attack on unions. The numbers of both tenured faculty lines and union members have been declining, until now both are minorities. But the Right wants to completely eliminate them. It is a very strange stance to take while also arguing that post-secondary education ought to prepare people for productive lives. I think that what the Right actually wants is a workforce that is entirely contingent and therefore completely compliant. If that’s democracy at work, then it is the very skewed notion of democracy that we find laughable in other nations.]


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