University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Horror Show Edition

BY RACHEL BUFF

stairs

POST-ACT 55 WISCONSIN, THE FIRST DAY OF UWM SPRING BREAK: less than a week out from the March 10 adoption by the state Board of Regents of new, Act 55-compliant policy that threatens the much-vaunted Wisconsin Idea.

The new policy riddles the academic freedom and university democracy consecrated in the Wisconsin Idea with contradictions. In the name of “flexibility” for a “21st century economy,” powers long vested in shared governance have now been wrested away from faculty and staff and placed instead into the hands of campus and system administrators. University employees are nervous, fearing that the new language of “program discontinuance,” effectively ends tenure and spells the end of employment for many faculty and academic staff.

At UWM, we are also a week shy of the Chancellor’s next budget address to the campus, rescheduled from March 10 to March 28 because of the Board of Regents meeting. In this budget address, the Chancellor is going to announce his program for dealing with UWM’s “structural deficit”: the $50 million of additional cuts confronted by our campus. The Chancellor is to discuss which of the recommendations of his Campus Organization and Efficiency Task Force (CCOET) he plans to adopt. These include programs for reorganizing the campus to maximize “efficiencies” and cut expenses as well as “position control” in which all open jobs are remitted to central oversight. Best case scenario: pursuing these cost-saving measures will involve a natural shrinkage of faculty and staff through attrition. Worse and more likely, this will involve terminations and layoffs.

Across the UW system, employees are nervous. Administrators are now in possession of formidable powers to terminate employment; they are motivated by vast cuts in state funding to seek cost savings. Layoffs and firings seem inevitable. As UW-Madison’s Dave Vanness and Chad Alan Goldberg point out, such powers abhor a vacuum: they are almost always deployed.

Spring break: I vow not to think about all this for a little while. Oblivious as a horror movie character who opts to check the basement, I open my email Monday morning. I am stunned to find this message:

On behalf of the Chancellor’s office I am announcing the search for the Director of the Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship.

How on earth is this a good time to be advertising for a new administrative post?

The most benign read of this is that it is simply a matter of institutional tone-deafness and bad timing. Donations like the one supporting the Lubar Center are vital to the economic health of the UW system, although they can also cost money to staff and maintain. Perhaps the Lubar Foundation gift covers the entire salary of the proposed position. Maybe there is a justified hurry. A hurry would certainly explain the one-week application window in the ad.

Even if this benign interpretation is accurate, the timing of this advertisement exhibits a terrible ignorance of campus climate on the part of the university administration.  We inhabit a period of severe state-imposed austerity, in which hard-working and undercompensated faculty and staff struggle to keep the units that teach and support UWM students afloat, amidst constant rumors of the end of institutional life as we know it. For example: to save money, the tremendously successful Campus Read program has been downsized from a free book distributed to all first year students to a free PDF of an article. In this context, the announcement of an entirely new administrative position seems inconceivable.

This timing points towards a much more sinister reading of this announcement. Even if the sounds the character initially hears on venturing down the basement stairs turn out to be just a cat, we all know there is something else down there, something big and scary, less fluffy and much more dangerous.

In this horror-show plot, the austerity created by Wisconsin politicians, the policy adopted by the Board of Regents last week, and the announcement of this new position are connected in sinister ways. They aim to restructure education on a corporate model.

Calls to make the university more “flexible” and “efficient,” to bring it in line with markets, to, in the sardonic phrase of Regent Margaret Farrow “welcome” us into the “21st century” disregard the deep roots of the UW system in democratic access. (Not to mention the existence of a Center for 21st Century Studies on this very campus!) In emphasizing markets, this new corporate model disregards the particular mission of UWM: to provide broad, public access to a top-tier, Research 1, university to all the people of Wisconsin.

Modifying UW to suit a corporate model undermines the creative freedom protected by tenure and job security. It is ironic that calls to transform the university are often cloaked in an ill-defined rhetoric of entrepreneurship, when true innovation relies on safe harbor for thought and experimentation. Perhaps an open campus and city-wide democratic conversation about what kinds of entrepreneurship best befit our particular mission might generate productive ideas for how to steer the beautiful new, empty building on our hard-hit campus. But there has been nothing of the kind. In the corporate model, administrators make those decisions.

The corporatization of the university has already resulted in an exponential growth of administrative costs at UWM. These administrative costs, along with inequity in the state funding formula, are a good part of why the campus now contends with the “structural deficit” on top of state-imposed austerity. It remains to be seen whether the Chancellor’s budgetary plans involve cutting administrative costs, or even taking a symbolic first million dollars out of the top salaries on campus.

What kind of a university system will Wisconsin have in the wake of the Board of Regents’ abrogation of academic freedom and university democracy? What does it mean to have the urban access campus of the state simultaneously plagued by debt and administrative bloat and increasingly tied to an undemocratic, corporate model?

We pause at the bottom of the cellar stairs and peer into the darkness.

One thought on “University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Horror Show Edition

  1. What Is Going Wrong with Higher Education, and How Can We Stop It

    I am in Wisconsin where the public university system is in the vanguard of reformation just as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Back then, actually starting in the last decade of the nineteenth century, what came to be called the Wisconsin Idea emerged among educators, public intellectuals, and yes even politicians. The heart of the Wisconsin Idea is that education in its broadest sense—instruction, discovery, dissemination of knowledge, etc.—is a public good. As a public good, like water and sewerage, sidewalks, and similar gains of civilization, education benefits everyone and should be supported by everyone.
    A hundred years later a lot changed. Principle among the changes, at least for the present discussion, is that public goods became privatized. It does not just apply to education, of course. Water is one example, as the transnational corporate giant Nestlé is draining the California water table to sell bottled water. Education was an early target of privatization. Higher education, especially, was at the top of the list in the infamous Powell Memo (http://reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis/) in which the soon to be US Supreme Court justice, Lewis Powell, laid out his plan to recover the leadership by what he called the “business class,” which is more accurately called the ruling class. What ensued was that his plan came to fruition. Although Powell did not envision the transformations of today, his plan made them possible. In the interests of saving time and verbiage, I’ll skip over the many twists and turns, and just summarize what changed in higher education.
    As with so much, the future of public education looked bright by the mid-1960s. The University of California system announced its no tuition policy (https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/digital-tweed/tuition-free-college-yesterday-and-tomorrow), and under Governor Patrick Lucy, Wisconsin consolidated its colleges and universities into a single system. Also at that time in Wisconsin, state law capped tuition at no more than twenty percent of the total cost of education per student. Usually, the tuition charged state residents was well under the cap. As we know, tuition has continually crept up, and students now look forward to debt servitude after graduation. So, after a half a century the future of higher education in the United States will look something like this.
    It will be tiered, with each tier serving particular political-economic function. I stress the political economy because we can forget about such niceties as knowledge for knowledge sake. Even the idea that an educated citizenry best serves the polity has been shunted into darkness. There will be four tiers with the top and bottom tiers least affected by higher education’s transformation. At the bottom are the community colleges, formerly called junior colleges, and technical schools. As with the Wisconsin Idea, Wisconsin, and in particular Milwaukee, led the nation with its outstanding community colleges. They supplied a skilled work force in fields as varied as printing, machining, plumbing, nursing, and so on. Today they also provide remedial education to students who have been ill served by the public K-12 system, as that system has been ravaged by the privatizers even more than higher education (see Diane Ravitch’s latest book, Reign of Error, NY: Knopf, 2013) In the future, this lowest tier will continue to provide trained labor, but instead of the skilled labor of yesteryear, they will only get specific training on how to operate particular kinds of robots. Of course this is training as opposed to education.
    The second tier will consist of those colleges and universities that can produce graduates who can make low level decisions in their work: low level administrators, those who used to be called paper shufflers before paper came to be replaced by electronic devices. This second tier provides some education, but assiduously avoids anything that prepares people for critical thinking or the ability to see the big picture, especially the big picture of political economy.
    Major public research universities will be in the third tier. It used to be that the research in these institutions included heavy loads of pure or basic research, that is, research with no immediate business or military application. Increasingly, that kind of research is giving way to STEM, which is code for potential profit centers. Education in the third tier prepares students for STEM-like futures, and where critical evaluation will be minimized, maybe even denigrated. To use an old example, as nuclear energy came out of basic research, there were still scientists who contributed to it who thought it might not be a good idea to turn it into weapons. They were unsuccessful, but at least they thought, spoke, and wrote about it. Those kinds of spokes in the wheels of commerce will not be desirable in the universities of the future.
    Like the bottom tier of community colleges, the top tier will be least affected by changes in higher education. The top tier includes the ivies and similar, almost all private, institutions dedicated to educating the ruling class. They always have and will continue to be much more liberal when it comes to supporting pure research and education for critical thinking, because the people who own and run things need that kind of knowledge and those kinds of skills. But of course, the ruling class is a closed club, and guess who isn’t in it.
    What can we do to stop these transformations to avert such a dystopian future? The first and most important step is toward solidarity. Faculty have to recognize that we have a common cause, not just among other faculty, but also others in the university community. We have to seek solidarity with the contingent instructors, the clerical support staff, and those who maintain the buildings and grounds. We also have to recognize the need for close alliances with our students, the students’ families, and the general public. In sum, we all have to become public intellectuals. Although not impossible, this kind of solidarity, necessary though it is, will be extremely hard to form. The reason does not just lie in the opposition we can expect from the privatizers running the show now. It comes from the history of the way faculty have behaved over the last fifty years.
    With apologies to Martin Niemöller, it will be so difficult for the following reasons:
    When the state kept jacking up tuition, I said nothing because it maintained my comfortable salary, perquisites, and health and retirement benefits. I did not advocate for contingent instructors to receive equivalent pay and benefits out of pride of status. I even thought they were lesser scholars than I. I relied on clerical support staff to do what I could do myself, and often complained when they did not take care of my needs right away. I barely noticed the buildings and grounds workers, but when I did, it was to complain to their supervisors about how they did their jobs. So now, when I and my colleagues have lost tenure, and might even lose our jobs, there is no one left to stand in solidarity with us to make the university what it should and could be.
    Well, maybe not entirely. I think it is not too late to start treating everyone here as a colleague in a great enterprise. And I think by taking the initiative and showing a change in our attitudes, we can stop the privatization of higher education.

    Geoffrey R Skoll is a retired faculty member who worked in Wisconsin as a contingent instructor usually without health benefits for fifteen years before getting a tenure track position and getting tenure in another state. Not coincidentally, it was in a university system with unionized faculty. His partner works as clerical support staff. And, of course, he was once a student.

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