Governor Scott Walker has called for draconian budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin System: $300 million, including $114 million for my flagship institution, UW-Madison. Coupled with previous recent significant cuts, this move furthers the on-going downward trend of state funding for higher education in nationwide. The Wisconsin legislature has the final say over Walker’s call, and even some of the Governor’s legislative supporters have expressed misgivings; after all, they, their children, and their constituents have a stake in maintaining the quality of UW.
The governor also launched a quickly aborted attempt to unilaterally redefine the hallowed “Wisconsin Idea,” the longstanding statutory mission statement of the University that is such a part of the historical DNA of the institution. He deleted language touting service and knowledge in favor of narrower language befitting a trade school: “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” The blowback was instantaneous from across the political spectrum, leading the governor to back off, unconvincingly blaming a “drafting error” for the misunderstanding.
Finally, Walker has proposed turning campuses into “public authorities,” which means giving them more control over their policies and allocations of resources. It is not clear if some key legislators will permit this weakening of their control over the University; but this reform could compel us to get our fiscal house in better order.
As Madison’s chancellor, the indefatigable Rebecca Blank, has averred, the accumulation of such drastic budget cuts poses a genuine threat to the quality of UW-Madison. Mobile faculty members here are considering leaving for greener pastures lest they remain aboard a sinking ship. Higher education exists in a competitive market, and no doubt Madison’s competitors are already licking their chops at the prospect of raiding some of my best colleagues.
From a broader perspective, the Wisconsin affair is part of a twofold historical challenge. First, it is no accident that the forces behind the Governor’s actions are Republicans. I have spoken with numerous conservative leaders and critics in Madison and around the country over the years (including trustees, regents, and politicians), and many feel deeply alienated from higher education because of the left-wing orientation and political correctness that reign in many domains—an alienation especially acute in polarized Wisconsin.
Regarding political correctness, higher education has met the enemy, and it is itself. At the same time, many conservative critics focus exclusively on bad apple examples, ignoring meaningful counter-examples that exist, sometimes even in abundance, including at Madison. In my experience, the vast majority of my colleagues excel at their jobs without letting politics influence their work one way or another. The fact that I, known as a conservative libertarian type, have thrived here supports this claim.
It was perhaps inevitable that the University of Wisconsin would be targeted as a liberal bastion. Political ambitions add fuel to the fire, as Walker’s presidential run suggests. So has our inability or refusal to acknowledge our own responsibilities for this dilemma. Before Walker, we were whistling past a graveyard. Now he has arrived.
Second, Wisconsin is also ground zero as an example of the growing challenges to what Walter Russell Mead has labeled the “Blue Model” of political economy, built upon large investments in the public sector as a principle of political order, including support for public unions, public social programs, and public education. Walker is famous for having waged the initial attack on this model back in 2011. Now he has turned his sight on the University itself. As Mead has recently written on his blog at The American Interest: “We have warned for some time that the modern American university system is more vulnerable than many professors like to think, and that the way public universities organize themselves is going to come under much tougher scrutiny in the coming years…A major restructuring of the university system is likely to come, with the weak spot being the publicly funded university system.”
Universities ignore the forces that Mead illuminates at their practical and moral peril. For example, we have let tuition go through the roof, pushing responsibility for our costs onto economically vulnerable students. This and other neglects have added fuel to attacks by Walker and others. But does this fact in itself justify bringing the University to its knees, if that be the effect?
Meanwhile, back on the ranch at Madison, professors across the political spectrum are deeply concerned about what is happening and reasonably fear we will lose our status as a leading research and educational institution. Virtually every conservative professor I know (a not inconsiderable number) is upset, including a colleague and friend who came within half an eyelash of defeating hyper-liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin for Congress in 2000. We also take particular umbrage at the Governor’s disparaging of our work habits, which is based on his ignorance regarding a fundamental fact: faculty at a research institution are supposed to do research in addition to teaching and service. The disparagement of research is symptomatic of the Governor’s attempt to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea.
If the budget cuts prove as harmful as critics fear, what effect would a decline in quality and reputation have on the state and the power of students’ degrees? And would the nation be better off if private schools ended up gathering the pieces public universities leave behind in their fall? These and other questions call out for answers as the drama of higher education deepens.