When We Don't Fund Public Education

Wisconsin’s Overpass Light Brigade light up the night with a message in support of public schools.  Courtesy: http://metea.weac.org/2015/02/09/parents-community-come-support-public-education


The narrative surrounding higher education in Wisconsin is yet again being defined by those who do not work in higher education and unfortunately, as we’ve seen before, this line of attack is incredibly persuasive.

“The No Confidence vote isn’t really about President Cross or the Board of Regents. The radical faculty at UW-Madison are rejecting the values and expectations of the people of Wisconsin. They are backhanding the middle class families who are pleading for controls on tuition and an end to wasteful spending in the UW System.” -Sen. Steve Nass

“This action by the governing members of UW Madison shows an arrogance that doesn’t serve the University or its students well. It’s a clear example of the complete disconnect between UW Madison faculty who seem to expect their job to come with a forever guarantee and the average Wisconsin family struggling just to make ends meet.” -Rep. Jim Steineke

“Some faculty bodies, including faculty at UW-M today, appear more interested in protecting outdated ‘job for life’ tenure than about helping students get the best education possible.  The University should not be about protecting the interests of the faculty, but about delivering value and excellence to Wisconsin.”-Governor Scott Walker

Faculty at UW-Milwaukee responded today and others have responded to comments made by Rep. Steineke,  Sen. Nass, and Governor Walker here and here, but before this gets any more reified in public discourse, I feel as though it’s important to shift the narrative and focus on the realities of enormous budget cuts not only to those who work within the UW system but to all Wisconsin citizens.

These cuts have been devastating: For as long as I can remember UW faculty and others have been critiquing the impact of budget cuts on their campuses, and for as long as I have been teaching, we have done a great job of trying to make sure students aren’t impacted by the cuts.  Unfortunately, when that happens, most in Wisconsin do not see the everyday consequences of budget cuts.  As Tamarine Cornelius writes “Wisconsin lawmakers cut state funding for the UW System by $125 million per year for the budget period that runs between July 2015 and June 2017, reducing Wisconsin’s investment in keeping higher education accessible and jeopardizing the economic benefit that Wisconsin residents receive from the UW System.  UW officials have released descriptions of planned and ongoing cuts to academics, facilities, and services at each campus that have been made to reduce costs in the wake of the budget cut. Many campuses are reducing the number of classes offered, potentially increasing the amount of time students must spend in school before they can receive credit for courses required for graduation. Other campuses are postponing updates to outdated facilities, cleaning buildings less often, and reducing advising and mentoring services for students. This map shows a selection of the cuts made at each campus, along with each location’s share of the $125 million budget cut.”

Nico Savidge states, “Five universities also mentioned cuts to student advising services.  In Green Bay, La Crosse and River Falls, cuts to the budgets for libraries mean students have reduced access to academic journals and course materials.  Officials in several of the summaries said they are concerned the cuts will hurt student retention efforts or lengthen the time it takes students to get a degree.  The UW System’s Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh and Parkside campuses have been unable to grow their programs in high-demand fields such as engineering, business and nursing, according to the documents.  At UW-Stevens Point, which lost $6.5 million in state funding, officials cut seven life science sections, which they say has caused ‘bottlenecks’ for pre-med students who need to take those courses. ”

UW-Eau Claire: “At UW-Eau Claire, the $250 million cut in state funding for the public university system in the 2015-17 budget translated to a loss of 15 percent of its workforce to absorb a $7.7 million reduction in state aid, a loss compounded by enrollment declines that cost the university an additional $1.5 million. The job losses came from a combination of buyouts, layoffs, resignations and retirements.  While administrators have tried hard to minimize the impact on students, the loss of 179 full-time-equivalent employees, including 69 teaching positions, forced UW-Eau Claire to offer 197 fewer class sections this semester compared with spring 2015, a drop of 12 percent, and increase the average class size by 14 percent, according to a budget impact fact sheet the university recently presented to the UW Board of Regents . . . . The extra sessions Willer will have to attend to get the classes she needs to graduate next May figure to cost her at least an additional $3,000, but that price tag would rise by about 50 percent if she had to stay in school for another semester. Junior biology major Nathan Sylte, a graduate of Chippewa Falls High School, blames an inability to enroll in necessary classes in a timely manner for his revised plan to attend college for 4½ years. ‘If I knew I was going to get all the classes I needed, graduating in four years would have been no problem,’ Sylte said, adding that pretty much all the students he talks to are running into similar problems.  Schmidt has pointed out in the past that the real cost of a student staying in college beyond four years goes beyond just the price of tuition and should include the ‘opportunity cost’ of lost income too. By that measure, he estimates the average cost of a fifth year of college totals about $50,000.”

UW-River Falls: “CAS in the past two months has had to make adjustments quickly, resulting in a reduction of faculty, larger class sizes and decreased course availability.”

UW-Superior: “Declining enrollment, debt and a lack of reserve funds at UW-Superior have left the campus unable to absorb the cuts. Fewer dollars on campus has meant fewer programs and faculty for students.”

UW-Extension: “Under the ‘Multicounty Reorganization Plan,’ new Extension regions would be created. Many staff would move or lose their jobs. Forty open positions would not be filled and another 40 would be cut. Some staff may remain local but a lot seemed to depend on the ability of counties to pay for lost state funding. Local programs and support are at risk.  Farmers and rural residents rely on UW Extension for many services. Generations of youth explored life-changing opportunities and developed their skills through 4-H projects. A multitude of pest, crop and disease crises were averted through the work of local ag agents who provided immediate communication between UW experts in Madison and farmers hundreds of miles away.”

Less state funding means higher costs for students: “The withdrawal of state funds is often one of the direct causes of increased college tuition—not necessarily an increase in faculty size, spending on construction, or administrative costs. Yet, many state policymakers attribute the increased tuition to wasteful spending by the universities. To fill the financial hole, state universities are going national and international—admitting many more out-of-state and foreign students, who sometimes pay as much as three times the tuition of state residents. Today, families pay more than half of the cost of a public-university degree. In 1970—a period during which middle-class wages stagnated—they paid about one-third. The tuition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, this year is roughly $7,000 for the first two years; $9,000 for the second two, according to school officials, (not the $55,000 commonly attributed to Ivy League universities). And these figures represent the sticker price, not the discounted price after taking into account financial aid.  At the two largest public systems of higher learning (the City University of New York and the California system), the average tuition runs from about $8,000 to $13,000 a year—the price tag at UC Berkeley. For example, fully 60 percent of City University undergraduates pay no tuition after taking into account financial aid, such as Pell grants and state support.”

UW campuses are job creators, worthy of investment:  As Daniel Riemer notes, “As millennials, creative industry start-ups, and corporate headquarters relocate to Milwaukee, our city and state’s balance sheets will improve as more money pours into our city and state coffers, while more new industries (and old industries too) are supported by the research of our R1 university. R1 universities such as UWM are talent magnets, and we need to strengthen it. It is not only the well-educated young who will thrive in this new economy. Creative and tech industries will generate demand, both directly and indirectly, for needed services. This will generate job multiplier effects throughout all areas of our city. Job openings will rise. Wages will rise, too. UWM is the key for launching this self-catalyzing process of economic development in Milwaukee. With tuition at less than a third of many other private universities, UWM provides an affordable path to prosperity for talented young people aspiring to join the middle class.”

Wisconsin citizens are having to make up monies not paid by the state:  As Dave Zweifel notes, “All too many of Wisconsin’s local school districts are in crisis. The so-called ‘savings’ they could achieve from Act 10 are now a thing of the past. Dozens of districts — from Rhinelander to New Glarus — have been forced to ask their property owners for permission to exceed the state’s strict revenue caps and increase property taxes.  But unlike the old days, those referendums aren’t seeking funds to build a new school or expand athletic facilities. Instead they’re aimed simply at maintaining the school district’s operating costs. It’s either that or face some draconian cuts to extracurricular activities, from music to sports, or lay off some teachers and increase the number of students per classroom.”

Faculty have no control over tuition rates, nor do we want to raise them: As Nick Fleisher claims, “So let’s be clear: I know I speak for many UW faculty when I say that we endorse the tuition freeze and want it to continue.  If anything, tuition should be decreased.  But a tuition freeze has to be funded by the Legislature.  Right now, the UW System is in the midst of a four-year unfunded mandate coupled with steep cuts in base funding, and it is hurting students.  A tuition freeze does no good when you can’t enroll in the classes you need and end up taking longer to graduate.  It does no good when it means the program you wanted to major in has to shut down.  Shifting costs away from students is the morally correct thing to do; declining to fund those shifted costs is pure deception.”

UW faculty are not making millions of dollars:  As I’ve stated now more times than I can count, “This year state employees were informed that our main out-of-pocket health care costs will double next year to avoid the ACA tax on ‘Cadillac Benefit Plans.’ However, unlike other state employees across the nation who have the right to collectively bargain, this decision was just made and will be implemented in January of 2016 with no say from faculty or staff. This, is essentially, yet another pay cut. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t make a six figure salary nor will I ever if I spend the rest of my lifetime working in the Colleges. Starting salaries of a professor with a Ph.D. remain at $43,000 and have stagnated. The highest paid professor with a Ph.D. at UW-Marshfield/Wood County, after 23 years of experience and service to our campus, makes $65,521.00. Most of my colleagues have second jobs, some at other institutions and others in any part time job available. Several who work full time on my campus and at other institutions are eligible for food stamps and reduced priced lunch programs for their children. They live paycheck to paycheck, working as line cooks and waitresses. They continue to pay off student loans and will do so for the next 25+ years at our rate of pay.”

I still continue to pay off student loans.  A tenured colleague of mine currently works at Rogan’s Shoes full time (in addition to being a full time tenured professor) to support her family.  On our campus, it’s difficult to find times to to do committee work because so many faculty and staff have additional part time jobs.

I do not say this to ask for your pity – I highlight this to show just how wrong the narrative around faculty salaries is.  It’s hard to “backhand the middle class” when the middle class is you, your friends, and most everyone you work with.  I enjoy the benefits I have earned working a job I love.  But one thing I am not, nor will I ever be, is a millionaire.

Tenure isn’t a job for life:  I’ve written about this once before.  “Here is the thing about tenure.  It’s a dirty word.  When most think of tenure, they think of the one teacher they had in high school who put off retirement to collect a paycheck, or the professor they had who could barely teach, but with the ironclad protection of tenure, was unfireable. Here are some common myths about tenure and how it’s granted. As the National Association for Education notes, ‘Faculty members win tenure because their senior colleagues are convinced they can perform with excellence and a great deal of independence. Tenured faculty are, in fact, successful, highly self-motivated people with a great deal of professional pride. Due process is a civilized value; the right measure of job security makes people more productive, not less. To reach the educational standards we all want, we need to have a corps of full-time, experienced faculty in charge of the academic program and committed to the institution. To keep up quality for the next generation of students, we need to keep up opportunities for the new generation of faculty. In the final analysis, who is in the best position to put academic standards first and shelve other considerations? College administrators? Elected officials? Professors are not perfect but they are educators. If it’s solid education we want, tenure matters’ . . . . Tenure does not mean one is immune from termination. Having tenure does not protect one from being laid off especially if they don’t continue to excel in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service.  Tenured professors get fired every year for legitimate reasons. Others get fired for illegitimate reasons.  But the idea that it is ‘impossible’ to fire a tenured faculty member is just patently false.”

If you decide to speak about the tenure process in higher education,  please take time to understand how this process works and try and speak with those of us who have gone through this process or who are going through it now. Before you make assumptions about what tenure is and is not, please don’t allow stereotypes and misinformation to guide your perceptions.

With all of the media attention surrounding the recent votes of no confidence from faculty around the UW system, the myths of tenure as a “job for life” and bloated faculty salaries are once again gaining traction and diverting attention from the real story:  how absolutely devastating cuts have been on campuses throughout the state.  Divide and conquer rhetoric is once again reclaiming a space in political discourse surrounding public education.  These narratives are baseless and without merit or fact.  However, they remain powerful frames  further dividing this state and its people at a time when all of us have far more to lose fighting against each other.



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