Wisconsin’s Neoliberal Arts

By Elena Levy-Navarro, University of Wisconsin at Whitewater

I write this as the state house leaders announce they have reached an agreement over the Wisconsin budget. If it is agreed upon on Thursday, they will craft the final bill. As of now, all we know about the discussions is what has been reported: namely, that they centered on three issues unrelated to the proposed UW System restructuring (funding for the Milwaukee Bucks stadium, funding for public road projects, and weakening the prevailing wage law). Thus, it seems likely that the framework set down in the brief Joint Finance Committee Omnibus Motion will be adopted in the final bill. The original proposal received wide criticism, especially for its revision of the mission statement and for its proposal to transform the UW System into a public-private authority. The Joint Finance Committee met to iron out a new agreement, offered in the most minimal framework in its JFC Omnibus Motion.

The motion lessened the massive cut to the UW System from the originally proposed $300,000,000 for the 2015-2017 biennium to the modestly smaller $250,000,000. It also deleted the UW System Authority, but even though the UW System is not to be made into a public-private entity, it is to be restructured so that it runs like a corporation. Thus, the following statement is less than reassuring when examined in context: “Under this motion, the UW system would remain a state agency, . . . , and current law related to the UW System, including the mission statement, would be maintained with the exception of the items specified below.” As always, the devil is, indeed, in the details, and what I intend to demonstrate is that the corporatism and neoliberal spirit of the original proposal is alive and well in the Omnibus Motion. Thus, it seems likely –although I do hope I am wrong – that the final bill will contain language that similarly radically restructures and reimagines the UW System. Now, the University of Wisconsin System is imagined as a business with its governing members increasingly reimagined as employees, and “at will” ones, at that, under increased authority of the Board of Regents.

Such a restructuring seeks to delete from the institution the humanistic goals that were behind its inception, as set down in the UW State Chapter 36. It also deletes the Wisconsin Idea that informed the UW System, and its constituent members before that, especially the University of Wisconsin at Madison. According to this founding logic, university education is a public good, and the university is a public institution, which in its broadest sense belongs to the people. With such a restructuring, this fundamental mission becomes harder to imagine, let alone to embody in its institutional activities. Faculty transform into employees, students into customers or, worse yet, products manufactured for the corporations’ benefit. Members of an ever changing “workforce,” the students themselves, much like the faculty, are expendable. Those aspects of the university which emphasize human dignity, communal development, and the search for truth become expendable in the name of “efficiency,” “flexibility,” and soon, “affordability.”

The changes suggested in the broad framework of the Omnibus Motion restructure the university to consolidate power in the Board of Regents. This change makes the university subject to political, rather than academic, oversight because the membership of the Board would be nominated by the governor with ratification by the Wisconsin Senate. The Regents’ governing power is no longer balanced by countervailing academic agents, the UW President, the chancellors of each institution, and, especially faculty and staff.

The state statute – UWS Chapter 36 – acts as a foundation constitution that enshrines in the law the respective roles, responsibilities, and rights of its members – the Board of Regents, the UW-System President, the chancellors of individual institutions, and within those institutions, faculty, academic staff, and students. The word “primary” that is struck from the description of the Regents’ new authority in the original proposed bill, and deleted from the description of faculty authority in the Omnibus motion specifies their respective governing authority. In both proposals, the law will be taken out of statute, and thus will no longer have a controlling influence on the Regents, and others. At the same time, the JFC places some restrictions on how the original law should be reinterpreted and rewritten. Even if the original law were adopted wholesale by the Board of Regents, it would no longer have the same meaning, because placing it there asserts the authority of the Regents to define “personnel matters,” and thus implicitly makes the faculty into the personnel over which it has presiding authority.

The JFC Omnibus motion, however, appears not to allow the Board of Regents to adopt the current statute intact into its policy. Even in its scaled down framework, the motion places explicit limitations on the responsibility and authority of faculty, academic staff, and students. Such a restriction is most radical in the specifications having to do with the faculty, since the law strikes down the specification that they are “vested with the responsibility” – and the “primary responsibility for academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters” (emphasis mine 36.09 (4)). The use of the term “vested” applied only to the Board of Regents, the UW-System President, the chancellors, and the faculty indicates that they are equally a part of the institution as a whole. They have an equal status, although they have distinct responsibilities. The Chapter is written in such a way as to encourage each governing body to understand its role in relationship to the other roles, and these distinctions are made so that each constituent body can work together toward a common humane goal of the public good. The JFC Omnibus Motion misreads this democratic framework and replaces it with an explicitly corporatist one. Where the original chapter carefully designates how each governing body is “subject to” other governing bodies: the Board of Regents is subject to the law and accountable to the governor, legislature, and the people; the UW-President is subject to the governing rules set down by the Regents, and the Chancellor is subject to all those as well as to the faculty’s express responsibility over curriculum, academic matters, and faculty personnel matters. Item 38 radically misunderstands and thus reimagine the governing structure of the university by reinterpreting the word, “subject to.” As Item 38 specifies, “Shared governance, general. Specify that, with regard to the responsibilities of the faculty, academic staff, and students of each institution, ‘subject to’ means ‘subordinate to.’” The specification strains the meaning of the original document, in which the “primary responsibility” “vested” in the faculty over curricular and academic matters as well as faculty personnel matters is balanced with the “primary responsibility” “vested” in the Board for the overall governance of the institution (36.09(1); 36.09(4)).

I speak here only of the respective responsibility and power, without discussing the way in which the entire document insists on the UW System as belonging to the people of the state and as directed toward a broad public good. Thus, the Board of Regents are explicitly conceptualized not just by their power, but by their responsibility to be caretakers, focused on the public good.

The original document, then, does not make specific governing bodies subordinate to the Regents, and if it did so, then the UW System President and the chancellors of the institutions would also be “subordinate to” the Board of Regents. The Omnibus Motion, however, is most concerned to diminish the responsibilities of the faculty and to “rebrand” them as employees, no longer vested in the institution, but rather “subordinate” to the Board of Regents as their boss. To achieve this, tenure must be redefined, and the Board of Regents are no longer be “limited” by the terms set down for awarding tenure. Power is taken from faculty over faculty personnel matters so that it can be transferred to the Board of Regents.

  1. Tenure: Approve the Governor’s recommendation to delete the definition of ‘tenure appointment’ and language establishing the conditions under which the Board of Regents may grant a tenure appointment to a faculty member. Delete current law specifying that a person who has been granted tenure may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. In addition, delete the definition of ‘probationary appointment’ and provisions limiting the length of such an appointment to seven years.

The specifics here are further elaborated in the notorious Item 39, where the powers of the Board of Regents, and of their officers, the chancellor of each institution, are broadened to give them the power to “Layoff [faculty and academic staff] due to budget or program decisions.” Now the current law is radically rewritten in order “to specify that the Board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists under current law.” The Board of Regents are handed power to make budget and program decisions, with the result that faculty and academic staff are stripped of their responsibility and authority over curricular matters. Such is the way that the workforce, however, must be handled in the new global reality, subject to their bosses and to the vagaries of the market.

It should be noted that the phrase “subject to,” used with all governing bodies, is only interpreted to mean “subjected to” when it comes to faculty, academic staff, and students. Those items, which specified the limitations to the power of the Board of Regents, are deleted from the JFC Omnibus, especially when it comes to “personnel matters.” Thus, in dismissing a faculty member because the program has been declared by it to have outlived its usefulness, the faculty are not allowed to review the curricular decision itself, nor is the administration required to follow the due process rules set down in the Wisconsin Administrative Code 227. In this fundamental reconceptualization, the faculty member becomes an employee, who must be subjected to the decision making of the Board of Regents, with little to no due process.

The Omnibus Motion explicitly strips the faculty of their “primary responsibility” over a number of matters. No longer, then, is the “primary responsibility” of the Board of Regents over “governance of the system” balanced with the faculty’s “primary responsibility for academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters (36.09(4)). In Item 35, “Shared governance, role of faculty,” the faculty’s original role is first misunderstood and subsequently revised. Thus, the specification that faculty have “primary responsibility for academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters” is transformed radically with the proposal to “Modify current law to specify that faculty of each institution would have primary responsibility for advising the Chancellor regarding academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters subject to the responsibilities and powers of the Board, President, and Chancellor” (emphasis mine). I italicize those portions that are added in a manner meant to limit the governing authority of the faculty. The modification takes language from the original statute and restructures so that the original intention of giving the faculty “primary responsibility” is nullified. Indeed, the item also proposes to “Delete current law specifying that the faculty of each institution be vested with responsibility for the immediate governance of such institution and actively participate in institutional policy development.”

Earlier this year, many criticized the proposed deletion of the Wisconsin Idea evident especially in the proposed changes to the mission statement (Chapter 36.1(2)). What was less appreciated is the extent to which the institutional changes suggested remake the institution in such a way as to delete effectively the Wisconsin Idea from the mission, whether or not the words of the mission remain intact, a relic of an antiquated time, much as corporate charters are now taken to have become. The Board of Regents are given the sole authority over all matters, and the faculty and academic staff are made their employees. The Board of Regents has little accountability, nor is it asked to work collaboratively with others. Under “accountability,” we learn only that the Board of Regents are given the explicit role of establishing measures to ensure that the institution is accountable, and to determine which legislative committees are appropriate for their reports (Item 30). Accountability has no social or humane elements, nor are the Board of Regents seen as the caretaker of a system in which all parties work together for a common social good. The Omnibus Motion, instead, asks the Board of Regents to assure accountability in the following areas: “(a) financial management; (b) administrative management; (c) educational performance; and (d) research and economic development” (item 30). Notice all that is absent here, including academic freedom, independent thought and exploration, social responsibility, and the social good. In fact, the list is notably inhumane, insofar as it discusses only corporate abstractions: “management,” “performance,” and, perhaps most notably, “research and economic development,” in which the first is implicitly measured with the latter.

Few noticed that the changes in the mission of the university in the original proposal is mirrored throughout the document, and especially in the radical revision to the UW-System’s statute enshrined shared governance. Chapter 36, as evident in the proposed changes in the initial proposal, contained a number of checks to the authority of the Board of Regents. For one, they are reminded that they have an academic and intellectual tradition to guard, one belonging to the past and present. Here I quote from the original proposal, which includes the lines that are amended and added to so that the reader can see what is deleted and what is reconceptualized:

36.11 (1c) IN GENERAL. (intro.) The primary responsibility for governance of the system shall be vested in the board which shall enact policies and promulgate rules adopt policies and procedures for governing the system, plan for the future needs of the state, including workforce needs, for university education, ensure the diversity of quality undergraduate programs while preserving the strength of the state’s graduate training and research centers and promote the widest degree of institutional autonomy within the controlling limits of system−wide policies and priorities established by the board. (L), and provide affordable access to high−quality postsecondary, graduate, and doctoral education. The board shall possess all powers necessary or convenient for the operation of the system except as limited in this chapter and ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.848 (1). and implementation of this chapter, including the following powers in connection with its projects and program, in addition to all other powers granted by this chapter: (https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/related/proposals/ab21)

Future needs of the state are focused especially on “workforce needs,” and the responsibility of the Board of Regents is rewritten to ask that they “provide affordable access to high-quality postsecondary education.” It all seems rather reasonable, but only if viewed from a limited neoliberal and corporatist framework. If viewed from the original understanding of the UW System as contained in Chapter 36 or from the mission statement of the UW System incorporated into it, this represents a radical takeover of the UW System from the people of Wisconsin. Moreover, the implementation of these accountability measures can be used further to chip away at understandings of human beings in a functioning democracy.

Even as faculty are transformed into at-will employees, the university is transformed from an institution that serves the public good and belongs to that public (and its constituent governing members) to one in which it is a top-down corporation with the flexibility to respond to the vagaries of workforce needs. Moreover, it subjects the university system to the changing whims of different administrations, undoing a mission that has been a source of state pride and educational stability. Under this model, the student is either a product ‑ and an expendable one at that, produced on behalf of corporations ‑ or a consumer. Under this model, the citizen is a taxpayer, who wants only to have the UW System be made accountable in the narrow ways insisted upon.

I believe that the people of Wisconsin – past and present – deserve more than this. We deserve the time-honored Wisconsin Idea, in which human beings are educated to participate in and transform the democratic society even as they fulfill their “sense of purpose” and in which, to quote from the mission statement enshrined in Chapter 36: “Inherent in the broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

Even more basic to this system is the understanding of its constituents as active agents of their life and democratic actors, something akin to the views of our founders. It has made our state proud in the past, despite the changing tides of events and political leadership. It has also made us a leader in the democratizing and humanizing possibilities of true education. Let’s not allow this to be taken away from us.

3 thoughts on “Wisconsin’s Neoliberal Arts

  1. Thank you, Prof. Levy-Navarro, for this brilliant and eloquent explanation of the sordid machinations by the governor, the state legislature, and the board of regents to undermine public higher education in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is indeed a test case, and I fear the consequences not only for the good people of Wisconsin, but for the rest of the country as well. This is why it is more urgent than ever that we academics make our case to the public about the dangers of the increasing corporatization of higher ed and the manipulations of both law and the public trust by those who do not see higher education as a public good.

    –David Kaloustian

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