Dismantling the Wisconsin Idea: Eroding Public Higher Education Access

On October 11, 2017, University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross proposed the restructuring of the University of Wisconsin System, by way of dismantling the UW Colleges (UWC), a statewide, open-admissions, two-year institution with a sole focus on liberal arts education. Originally framed as a merger, the changes, approved at the November 9 Board meeting,  eliminate the shared curriculum, administrative, and governance structures that had been in place, uniting these 13 campuses since 1971. Though these structures are ‘invisible’ to most outsiders (and some inside the institution), they are actually the most important component for institutional accreditation because they are the processes by which we maintain the quality of our academic program (academic departments provide disciplinary expertise and evaluation of instruction and curriculum; faculty governance committees review personnel, set professional standards, award and subsidize forms of professional development that instructors engage in, review curriculum proposals from a crossdisciplinary and policy complaince perspective,etc). In other words, the functions most critical to the maintenance of the academic program in the UW Colleges happen at an institutional level.

At present, the plan approved by the board dismantles the insitution and reassigns the brick and mortar UWC to four-year comprehensive and research institutions. Those quality control structures thus have to be rebuilt or learned anew by the faculty and staff at ‘branch’ campuses. A 14th “Online Campus” was originally proposed to be housed within the System office as a renamed and repurposed entity.  It was apparent to most people working on the ground that the institutional functions described above–which would no longer exist–could not be reproduced for the online program, meaning housing it in an entity that couldn’t provide that level of quality control would not pass accreditation muster. This was of course determined the following month with a special resolution presented to the board after efforts to persuade the Higher Learning Commission to approve the proposed relocation of the online ‘campus’ were unsuccessful.

The UW Colleges administration, faculty, and staff learned of this merger through an article published in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. President Cross’s rationale for these changes is entirely based on demographic shifts in Wisconsin. A subsquent blog post will break down these numbers more critically, but suffice it to say that they do not capture the whole story.

As expected, the UW System Board of Regents approved the change in structure through a resolution on November 9, 2017.

For the last 45 years the UWC has played a unique and critical role in serving The Wisconsin Idea. UWC provides access to liberal arts college coursework to residents who would otherwise be excluded from higher education while also serving the highest percentage of in-state residents of any UW institution. The UW Colleges mission is one of access: “a multi-campus institution committed to high quality educational programs, preparing students for success at the baccalaureate level of education, providing the first two years of a liberal arts general education that is accessible and affordable, providing a single baccalaureate degree that meets local and individual needs, and advancing the Wisconsin Idea by bringing the resources of the University to the people of the state and the communities that provide and support its campuses.” UWC focuses on general education coursework designed to launch students into transfer to baccalaureate programs, which is important for social mobility and professional career trajectories that contrast in significant ways with the vocational mission of our technical college system (which is positioned very specifically as serving business interests and communities). Our campuses are a pathway for our mostly first-generation, Pell-eligible, and at-risk students to a civically-engaged middle-class life. Or have been until now.

What we trace here is an interpretation of how these decisions are a roadmap to dismantling accessible, affordable public higher education in our state. Wisconsin has made headlines as the laboratory for taking one of the most robust and progressive states for higher education and public sector labor and transforming it via conservative think tank-driven public policy. The state of Wisconsin is now a neoliberal landscape characterized by austerity measures, free market and corporate values superimposed onto higher education, and weakened employee protections across employment sectors. What follows is the blueprint for how Wisconsin’s public education system was dismantled.

Budget “Repair:” Death by 1,000 Cuts

When looking retrospectively, it’s easy to see how, over the last seven years, a series of structural, fiscal, and policy changes were put in place that led to the conditions that now exist for essentially dissolving the third largest institution in the state (by student headcount), serving approximately 12,000 students and employing 1000 faculty and staff, with detrimental effects on Wisconsin resident students.

The first and most notable state policy decision that set off the events leading to the current restructuring proposal was what is informally referred to as Act 10. Officially titled the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,” it was the first of a series of legislative policy changes that fundamentally compromised the progressive tradition of both excellent quality higher education and values attached to the public good that have defined the state. Act 10 stripped away jurisdiction and legitimacy for public sector unions, cutting off a burgeoning flurry of activity around unionization within our higher education institutions that would complement the strong system of tenure and shared governance (the only that was enshrined in state statute) that has defined the UW System. As the first state in the country to authorize public unions, this legislative assault was especially symbolic –and led to a series of protests later called “The Wisconsin Uprising,” a crowd-occupation of the state capital, reaching 80,000 in number. Subsequent actions by Republican legislators included not complying with our state’s robust open-meetings laws as they sought to pass anti-union legislation. Significantly, Governor Scott Walker divided public employees from state residents, misrepresenting salaries and benefits, while insinuating they are separate from taxpaying citizens: “we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”

Such political drama was followed by more pedestrian but equally damaging legislative decision-making, including cuts to the UW System budget of 250 million dollars following years of fiscal starvation and austerity measures like furloughs, increased contributions to retirement, and more expensive healthcare co-pays. Within the UW Colleges, these cuts were implemented as layoffs to staff positions, almost all of which provided direct services to our often at-risk and marginalized students populations–technology support, admissions and registration, in person financial aid support, academic advising, and other key extra-academic services that our largely first-generation student population rely on.

Since those who are appointed to the Board of Regents serve for seven years, by 2016, all but two of the Regents were in the middle of terms appointed by Governor Scott Walker and voting in lockstep with each other. Under this ideologically monolithic group, a legislative action that found its way into a 2015 Joint Finance Committee bill removed the definitions, rights and responsibilities spelled out for tenure rights and shared governance rights from state Statute where they had been for decades and moved them to Board policy, thus allowing them to be changed much more easily and watered down to allow individual institutions–and chancellors of institutions–to make autocratic decisions about the working and teaching and learning conditions of faculty, staff, and students.

This action was enabled by changes to the composition of chancellor search committees (fewer faculty, staff, and community member representatives), and by a highly controversial decision to mute the language in the board tenure, post-tenure review, and faculty layoff policies to allow for more top-heavy decision-making on closures of programs that resulted in layoff of faculty. Administrators also have more control over the post-tenure review processes (including requiring an up/down vote from a dean-level or higher administrator on every faculty member’s post-tenure review). These policy changes, along with a subsequent board policy guaranteeing “Freedom of Expression” which, contrary to its title, puts in place chilling consequences for students (and presumably faculty and staff) who publicly protest/object to hate speech or offensive speakers on campus. Finally, the new faculty layoff policy at the Board level loosened the criteria required for a program closure–where previously a campus or the Board had to declare a fiscal emergency to move ahead with faculty layoffs, now “program discontinuance” and “fiscal considerations” are equally valid criteria for decisions that will result in tenured faculty layoff.

Subsequent to these changes, several statewide and systemwide factors converged to lead Wisconsin to the present moment, where the UW Colleges will be dissolved and dismantled to be distributed to four-year campuses as “branches,”  with no clear plan or data to direct the decision. Meanwhile, the profitable online “campus” of the institution will continue as a collaborative online program presumably designed to generate maximum revenue for the contributing campuses. UW campuses are also currently seeing program closures and tenured faculty layoffs, most notably at UW Superior and UW Stevens Point.

Even prior to the election of Scott Walker, the UW system eliminated systemwide strategic enrollment management, incentivizing individual campuses to exceed their designated enrollment target and encouraging mission creep. It also meant that previously more selective institutions (except for UW Madison) have motivation to admit academically underprepared or underqualified students to their campuses without a corresponding requirement to provide students with appropriate academic support.

The Big Picture: Systemic Divestment in Public Education & Privatization of the Knowledge Economy

A critical review of the ongoing defunding of public education, and policy changes reveal that there is a longer game here. What becomes apparent is an ideological motivation to dramatically change the structure, function, and influence of public higher ed. The “end game” is the privatization of the knowledge economy, goals that are well-funded by conservative groups such as the Bradley Foundation, MacIver Institute, and the Koch Foundation. When discussing the Bradley foundation, Mike Tate, former Democratic party chairman states “They have a 15- or 20-year vision, and they are executing it. They have their eyes on the horizon the whole time. That is not something seen in a substantial way in the progressive movement.” The most recent changes to the UW Colleges are only the latest move in the series massive budget cuts, Act 10, media onslaughts targeting UW’s non-existent “slush funds,” the infamous “drafting error” that attempted to modify the UW System’s mission, widely-known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” and changes to administrative hiring processes that have eliminated the requirement for expertise in higher education and instead privileged business and revenue-generation. In other words, the dismantling of UW Colleges is only the latest move in the series that began in earnest with Walker’s election in 2010.

Though public objection prevented executive changes to the Wisconsin idea that Walker penned in a 2013 budget bill, service to private industry and the goals of delegitimizing teaching and curriculum loom large over the changes to the UW Colleges and the UW System as a whole. At the November 9 Board of Regents meeting, Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow called for public education to create business-driven curriculum and programs and cited the need for UW campuses to meet FoxConn’s (a 3 billion dollar political deal that will cost taxpayers nearly $15,000 in tax breaks per job created by this large corporation) workforce development needs that can be met in 6 weeks’ time. At the same time, there are legislators calling for increased “accountability” and for professors to “spend more time in the classroom” while reducing required teaching credentials. Essentially, there is a fundamental conflict between those work with students and those who make ideologically driven policy decisions about the purpose of higher education and its value.

For Wisconsinites invested in public education, this restructuring seems like the first step toward eventual closing of multiple UW Colleges and other struggling comprehensive campuses. The logic that the public is being asked to accept is that by spending a lot of money on a merger and on Huron Consulting, the UW will somehow be able “to keep the doors open” at local campuses. Faculty, staff, students, and communities who value access to an affordable liberal arts education worry, in actuality a re-structured UWC will ultimately end up excluding students from higher education. From a balance sheet perspective, It does not add up to anything other than a further financial divestment in public education and a weakening of the UW System.

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