Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


JFC testimony

Together with several UWM colleagues, and alongside hundreds of others, I attended today’s public hearing of the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature, which was held at Alverno College in Milwaukee. This was the second of four public hearings held around the state this week and next.

The hearing was an education in the many deplorable proposals contained in Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget. I have been focused primarily on the proposed funding cuts and structural changes to the UW System, and also on the funding cuts to K-12 education and the proposed voucher expansion. During the time that I was able to attend the hearing, I heard impassioned and compelling testimony against Walker’s proposed cuts to Family Care and IRIS, among many other things. Walker’s budget is a moral catastrophe from front to back.

I could only stay for about four hours, and thus wasn’t able to speak at the hearing. My colleagues who arrived much earlier than me finally got their chance to speak after waiting for eight and a half hours. I delivered a written copy of my prepared testimony to a committee page. The testimony is designed to fit within the allotted two-minute time limit, and is correspondingly terse and narrow in focus. It is reproduced below:

Dear Committee Members,

I am an assistant professor of Linguistics at UW-Milwaukee. I’d like to begin by commending you for taking seriously the issue of UW tuition and affordability—as shown, for example, in Reps. Nygren and Knudson’s statement issued Wednesday—and also for your healthy skepticism of UW administrative leaders. I’m glad to see that many of you share the concerns that I and my colleagues have expressed about the very sketchy public authority proposal and its potential effects on tuition, and I’m glad to hear that the public authority is now unlikely to become law in this budget.

But I find it difficult to square your stated concern for UW affordability with the proposal to cut state funding to the System, even by an amount smaller than Gov. Walker’s proposed $300 million. The major driver of tuition increases is the state disinvestment that we have seen under both Democratic and Republican administrations. This is true across all sectors in higher education—research universities, comprehensives, and technical and community colleges—and ultimately holding down tuition depends on your commitment to maintaining and eventually increasing funding levels.

I also urge you, in light of the demise of the public authority proposal, to keep Chapter 36 intact in state law in this budget. Some legislative leaders this week have taken issue with the Board of Regents’ recent resolutions in support of tenure and shared governance. If you take a look at public university systems in other states—including Michigan, California, Texas, Ohio, and many others—you will find that tenure and shared governance are bedrock principles enshrined in Board of Regents rules and bylaws, much as our Board of Regents resolved at its last meeting. Endangering these principles in Wisconsin would be a major self-inflicted wound to our national and international competitiveness, and would make it impossible for UW to recruit and retain top faculty. Like a number of my colleagues, I came to Wisconsin from a tenure-track job at a university in another state. Had UW not had tenure and shared governance, I would not have so much as applied for the job I now hold.

UW faculty share your concerns about affordability and quality. Please let us continue to work with you to maintain and improve both, for the good of the state we all love and call home.


Don’t need a weatherman

The political momentum for converting the UW System from a state agency into a public authority has continued to stall in the wake of the March 5 Board of Regents meeting. Not two weeks ago, the public authority conversion appeared as unopposed by major players in the UW System and state government as it was unsupported by evidence or argument. By the end of this past week, chancellors were publicly voicing their skepticism and prominent legislators were positioning themselves for the proposal’s anticipated demise and the budget negotiations that will now take place in its aftermath.

Most notably, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos made headlines on Thursday when he voiced his frustration with the Board of Regents. Vos took issue with the Board’s March 5 resolutions in support of tenure and shared governance, asking why the state should give the Regents greater autonomy (in the form of the public authority) when they are unwilling to make changes in this core area of the university’s operations. While faculty and others were understandably aghast, it seems that Vos’s comments were the product of nothing so much as his need to distance himself politically from the now seemingly doomed public authority proposal, which he had earlier championed. To be sure, it is a distressing measure of Vos and his political base that his face-saving move is to harangue the Regents over their unwillingness to smash one of the pillars of the university. But tough talk often rides in place of actual conviction, and while Vos is no doubt frustrated that the Regents have declined this particular bit of dirty work, it remains to be seen whether the legislature will pull the trigger when it will be their fingerprints alone on the gun.

In those same comments Thursday, Vos also indicated his desire in principle to reduce the size of the budget cuts for the UW and K-12 proposed by Scott Walker. Vos hasn’t passed up opportunities to state his differences with Walker in the past, and this was no exception. Walker is now fully consumed by his still-unofficial presidential campaign, to the point that even the Journal-Sentinel’s beat reporters don’t know which state he’s in on a given day. The jockeying for succession within the Wisconsin GOP is surely well under way. And while Vos’s prospects for governor are uncertain—the smart money would appear to be on Dale Kooyenga, the 36-year-old state representative from Brookfield (deepest WOW county), a certified public accountant and Iraq veteran who has risen rapidly from his election in 2010 to the vice-chairmanship of the powerful Joint Finance Committee—it is certainly interesting to see Vos draw a distinction between himself and Walker by moving to oppose the public authority and pointing out the undue largeness of Walker’s proposed cuts.

About those cuts: this past week also brought a first glimpse of what to expect if Walker’s proposed $300 million cut for 2015-17 becomes law. On Thursday, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt announced a buyout offer that would apply to over 300 faculty and staff. The week before, Schmidt testified alongside UW System President Ray Cross before the Joint Finance Committee of the legislature, speaking with disquieting zeal about the challenge of reshaping the university in the face of significant funding cuts. The buyout, of course, is the kind of thing that happens when academic strategy is dictated wholly by cost-cutting. At the JFC hearing, Schmidt used the metaphor of emptying out a basket and deciding what to put back in. For all the deliberation and strategic decision-making Schmidt’s metaphor is meant to suggest, the initial stage of the plan—in which as many as a quarter of the university’s employees are simply being invited to leave—looks more like flinging the entire institution against the wall and seeing what sticks.

With opposition to the public authority proposal now running the gamut from the Board of Regents to the Speaker of the Assembly (to say nothing of UW faculty, staff, students, and alumni), there has been a notable silence from the two figures most closely tied to the proposal: Scott Walker and Ray Cross. Walker is otherwise occupied; Cross will visit UWM for the campus’s public budget meeting on March 25. It will be interesting to see whether the public authority is anything close to a tenable proposition ten days from now. Surely even Cross, the public authority’s most ardent advocate, must know which way the wind blows.


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Back to reality

This past Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting in Madison appears to have completely upended the debate over the proposed conversion of the UW System to a public authority. Last Tuesday, System President Ray Cross spent three hours before the Joint Finance Committee of the legislature pleading his case for the public authority. By Thursday, the Board of Regents had explicitly declined to pass a resolution supporting the public authority model championed by Cross, and instead resolved unanimously that the System should seek the coveted “flexibilities” either through amendments to existing statute (i.e., by tweaking Chapter 36 instead of nuking it) or through an “agreed-upon” public authority model (i.e., one that has received an actual public vetting).

Credit for the change in tune is due most immediately to David Walsh, a Regent who is also a Madison attorney and chair of the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority Board (often held out, with a mix of hopefulness and cluelessness, as a model or precedent for the proposed UW System Authority). In other words, Thursday’s pushback was initiated by someone who knows a thing or two about public authorities and their legal and financial intricacies.

Of course, those close to the UW System—faculty, staff, students, alumni—have been sounding the alarm about the public authority proposal for weeks. An open letter to Cross calling for a two-year study period and moratorium on implementation now has over 500 signatures, including those of former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus and the prominent Milwaukee businessman Sheldon Lubar (he of the eponymous UWM business school). There is a broad and expanding base of support for the idea that the slapdash conversion proposed by Scott Walker and championed by Cross is irresponsible in the extreme and must be stopped. Things have turned so completely that at this morning’s campus budget meeting UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, when pressed, was forced to concede that he does not support the public authority proposal in its current form. Opposition to the public authority—or at least to this public authority—has gone mainstream.

The task that now faces us is to shift attention back to the catastrophic proposed funding cuts at the heart of the current crisis. We have lost just over a month debating the merits of a public authority proposal whose only discernible purpose was to distract attention from the cuts. We now know that the public authority will save at most 10% of the money that Walker is proposing to cut. It was also revealed at today’s budget meeting that, when “costs to continue” are factored in, the $300 million cut over the 2015-17 biennium is really a $348 million cut, with UWM’s share coming to $24 million per year if past formulas are followed. Additional accounting factors mean that UWM must plan for a base reduction of $26 million per year if the cuts go through as proposed by Walker. In other words, UWM alone would face a cut that is 30% larger than the maximum systemwide public authority savings touted last week by Ray Cross (viz. $20 million per year).

If last week’s JFC hearing is any indication, some Republicans in the legislature will fall back on the argument that UW campuses have cash reserves they can use to soften the blow, echoing their unfocused apoplexy of 2013. At UWM’s budget meeting of three weeks ago, Mone stated that UWM’s true cash reserves—i.e., funds not committed to specific purposes—are just under $1 million. This, for a campus whose annual operating budget is approximately $550 million. Stated as a percentage of its operating budget and rounded to the nearest whole number, UWM’s cash reserves stand at 0%. This is scandalously, accreditation-threateningly low.

There is no softening the blow. If Walker’s cuts go through as proposed, UWM and every other campus in the UW System will be irrevocably and perhaps irreparably harmed. The public authority proposal is now widely recognized for the cynical decoy that it is, and this provides those who would save the UW System with an opportunity that just a week ago seemed out of reach: to shift the focus of debate entirely to the $300 million funding cut and the excision of Chapter 36 from state law. Those are the things that have been at stake throughout this process. If they are still to come to pass, it will now have to be honestly and openly, without the public authority proposal shielding them from view.

A few weeks ago, the headlong rush toward the public authority felt like sprinting onto a diving board and praying that there’s water in the pool. Now, having seen that the pool is indeed empty, we have managed to stop short. It remains for us to turn around and confront the threat that chased us there in the first place.


The cuts are the thing

If you were becoming convinced that the plan to convert the UW System to a public authority was intended primarily to shift discussion and attention away from the permanent $150-million-per-year funding cut that is simultaneously being proposed, today’s stultifying three-hour Joint Finance Committee hearing on the UW System budget probably didn’t do much to change your mind.

The public authority proposal dominated discussion: its attendant flexibilities and efficiencies, the “stable and predictable” funding source it is slated to enjoy, the enhanced accountability that will be expected of the UW System in exchange for the autonomy, and worries about how to control tuition increases. System President Ray Cross made a brief, pro forma request for a softening of the funding cut at the conclusion of his opening remarks, but those remarks were headlined by a plea for the public authority. To the extent that committee members brought up funding at all, it was mostly to ask questions about System account balances, which, two years after they were used to manufacture a scandal during the heart of the budget-writing process, still seem to elicit Benghazi-like levels of indignation from some Republican legislators.

The cuts are the thing. A committee member wants to know why tuition has far outpaced inflation over the past two decades? Because the state has continually cut funding. As this chart prepared by PROFS at UW-Madison shows, tuition increases almost exactly match per-student decreases in general-purpose GPR since 2000. There is an easy way to stem the tide of tuition increases, but none of the ostensibly very concerned Republicans in the room dared speak its name.

The cuts are the thing. The UW System’s own estimate, repeated today by Cross, is that the public authority might eventually save between $15 million and $20 million per year. This estimate is so far unsupported by documentation and is likely to be a generous one, given System’s enthusiastic endorsement of the public authority conversion. But Scott Walker’s proposal is to cut UW’s funding by $150 million per year in perpetuity (with CPI-pegged increases beginning in 2018). Even the rosiest estimate of what the public authority can do thus leaves 87% to 90% of Walker’s cuts unaccounted for.

The cuts are the thing, and the public authority has been presented as the quid pro quo. Many seem to see this as the best that can be achieved in a bad situation: take the public authority offer or risk getting nothing! But why would Walker offer UW leaders the public authority if he didn’t feel he had to? Out of the goodness of his heart? Far more likely is that Walker expected that the $300 million cut over the coming biennium would receive significant pushback, and needed something to get buy-in from UW administrators and to distract everyone else.

UW administrative buy-in has certainly been achieved (apparently it’s mandatory). In exchange, UW leadership has given up any leverage it might have had for resisting the cuts. After all, they’re getting what they want! But they’re getting it with significant strings attached. The CPI-pegged increases in funding—a cornerstone of the “stable and predictable” funding source of which Cross is so enamored—don’t start until a year into the next budget cycle, which must be approved by the next legislature. The current legislature, in other words, would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. The legislature will also, of course, retain ultimate control over that funding, Cross’s promises of stability and predictability notwithstanding.

Distraction of everyone else has also largely been achieved. Legislators have an excuse to focus on the minutiae of the public authority proposal instead of on the cuts, and faculty and staff have been preoccupied with the proposed removal of Chapter 36 and its attendant protections from state law. It is entirely possible that tenure and shared governance will survive intact in Board of Regents policy, and that they will be no more vulnerable there than they are under the control of the current legislature. But the present crisis stems entirely from the cuts, and so it is no small irony that UW System leadership’s vigorous cheerleading for the public authority has been a major contributor to distracting attention from them.

The cuts are the thing. They are part of a vicious and entirely deliberate cycle of tax cuts, deficits, and spending cuts. To willfully ignore this reality—to participate in the theater of its unutterability, as UW System leaders did today—is to condemn UW to its continued depredations for the foreseeable future.


Cross doubles down

There is no daylight between Scott Walker and Ray Cross. That is the very clear message of yesterday’s Journal-Sentinel op-ed penned by Cross, the UW System president tasked with absorbing Walker’s permanent $150-million-per-year funding cut and changing the system from a state agency to a public authority. Anyone hoping for an appeal to caution, deliberation, or even minimal study of the public authority transition from the man who will oversee its implementation—and there are many of us who are—will not find it here.

Nor can one find even a hint of protest at the unprecedentedly massive cut in state funding proposed by Walker. Cross mentions “the challenging fiscal reality facing Wisconsin” (read: a deficit created by supply-side tax cuts) and notes that “we have a substantial budget reduction to face and to manage”. But in the next breath, we hear that Walker’s budget also contains “the tools to build a more stable and sustainable UW System of the future”. The man whose office should make him the most powerful and vocal opponent of the cuts has publicly accepted them as a foregone conclusion.

It is possible to interpret Cross’s move here as a tactical surrender: with UW-hostile Republicans in control of state government, he recognizes the weakness of his position and accepts the terrible deal on offer for fear of ending up with something even worse. This interpretation, though, overlooks the crucial fact of Walker’s willingness to enter into a deal in the first place. Magnanimity and even-handedness are not exactly Walker’s calling cards. He struck a deal with Cross because he thought he needed to in order to sell the cuts. Cross has thus either failed to recognize the strength of his hand and foolishly folded early, or he has something equally valuable at stake.

Indeed, there is much to recommend the theory that Cross covets the public authority and sees the deal with Walker as his best chance at getting it. In a Jan. 6 email released under a freedom of information request, Cross told UWM’s chancellor that “this is something we might not get a shot at for another 20-30 years”. Cross is described as having been blindsided by the proposed cuts—he had asked for a $95 million increase—but recognizing an opportunity to craft a grand bargain. The result is the hastily arranged marriage between Walker’s cuts and Cross’s public authority.

So where are we left? We have a sketchy proposal to convert the UW System into a near-totally amorphous public authority; the one explicit provision is the one stripping statutory rights and protections for UW employees and students from their longstanding place in state law. We have had no period of study to ascertain how much money this ostensibly savings-oriented conversion might eventually save—to say nothing of the magnitude of its likely effect on tuition—and we will not have one. Walker’s cuts will ravage UW campuses in the near term, and our system president has taken to the state’s leading newspaper to provide political cover for him.

This deck is stacked, all right.


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Fast-tracking the elimination of Chapter 36

This past Friday brought the sudden announcement that legislative leaders in Wisconsin would call an extraordinary session in order to pass “right-to-work” legislation. The impending death blow for Wisconsin’s private-sector unions—coming four years after the state’s public-sector unions (save those that supported Scott Walker) received the same treatment—promises to suck up all of the state’s political oxygen in the near term. Workplace freeloading will likely acquire the force of law within a week, and it is worth reflecting on the parallels between this newest legislative push and the slightly slower-moving attack on the University of Wisconsin System, to which the state’s attention may in due time return.

Right-to-work is being moved through the legislature with all the subtlety of a daylight mugging. Wisconsin’s experience is reminiscent of what happened in Michigan, where a lame-duck legislature passed similar legislation in December of 2012. Proponents of right-to-work recognize that time, consideration, evidence, and argument are significant impediments to passage. Wisconsin’s small businesses are not in favor of it. A Marquette economist told WUWM last week that right-to-work is likely to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue. Its champions in the legislature, it seems, are acting out of nothing so much as a desire to demonstrate their adherence to the most thoroughly discredited economic theory this side of full communism.

Hence the fast track. And so it is with the proposal, introduced by Scott Walker and endorsed by UW System President Ray Cross and several chancellors and other top administrators, to eliminate Chapter 36 from Wisconsin statute. Chapter 36 defines the UW System and lays out the statutory guarantees of tenure and shared governance, among many other things. UW administrators have been at pains to stress their desire and intention to maintain the spirit of Chapter 36’s guarantees in Board of Regents policy after the proposed transition to a public authority. They have equally studiously avoided making any written or spoken guarantee to this effect. The rights and protections presently enumerated and enshrined in state law will be blithely tossed into the black box of the public authority without anything like a proper period for public review, input, and due diligence. UW administrators have been doing an awful lot of protesting about the high regard in which they hold Chapter 36, and precious little advocacy for its retention in state law.

The rights and protections afforded under Chapter 36 apply not just to faculty, but also to students and academic staff. The United Council of UW Students issued a strong statement of opposition to the public authority conversion today and in defense of their rights under Chapter 36. Faculty are quickly waking up to the danger, as well. While a public authority might offer a margin of safety from a radical and hostile legislature, it is becoming increasingly difficult to countenance the motives of an administration that endorses the wholesale elimination of rights and protections long codified in law, much less one that sees a suitable replacement in the good intentions of a Board of Regents dominated by gubernatorial appointees.

If the public authority is actually an idea worth pursuing, then UW leadership should push to get it off the fast track. And it must give some substance to its so far empty defense of Chapter 36.


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All aboard the public authority crazy train!

The proposed conversion of the UW System from a state agency to a public authority is fast becoming a political phenomenon of that most uncanny variety: one whose abject awfulness is matched only by the growing sense of inevitability that surrounds it.

Others this week have written at length about the problems that attend the public authority conversion. See especially Noel Radomski’s comparison of Wisconsin’s proposal to what happened in Virginia, as well as recent assessments and synopses by Chuck Rybak and Richard Grusin.

As all of these authors emphasize, the core problem with the public authority proposal is that there is no proposal. The people of Wisconsin are being asked to scrap the entirety of the portion of state law that defines the UW System (Chapter 36), which has effectively—if imperfectly, or so administrators tell us—governed a highly complex organization for decades, and trade it all in for…what’s behind Door #3. Seriously. There is no proposal. This point was underlined at today’s meeting of the UWM Faculty Senate, where one of the three visiting Regents averred, in response to a senator’s question, that this is simply how government does things. A panel will be convened in the coming year to hash out all the details; you could even be on it! In the meantime, Chapter 36 goes in the shredder. Shoot first, ask questions later.

Radomski’s comparison with Virginia is particularly striking. According to him, Virginia took the first formal steps toward exploring a public authority conversion in 1988. Many years of study, public dialogue, and revision went by before Virginia’s public authority became law in 2005. That’s 17 years. By comparison, the amount of time between when the public first heard about Scott Walker’s proposed conversion (late January of this year) and when it would be implemented (July 1, 2016) is roughly 17 months. The timeline for a decision—from the unveiling of Walker’s budget proposal to its eventual passage in the legislature—is approximately 17 weeks.

To repeat: we have zero information about how the public authority would work, how much money the conversion itself is likely to cost, or how much money might eventually be saved as a result. No relevant analyses of the UW System budget have been published, no specific proposals have been put forth, and no public hearings held. It is quite literally impossible to know whether the public authority itself is a good idea, because there is no idea to evaluate. The proposed conversion, then—the idea that we should change the UW System into a wholly undefined public authority—is beyond insane. It is, rather, deeply suspicious.

Walker and his supporters in the legislature are obviously bargaining in bad faith: they want to cut the unprecedentedly massive sum of $300 million in state support to UW over the next two years in order to plug a deficit created by tax cuts, and they seem to believe that the public authority will help them make an otherwise shaky political case for slashing UW’s funding. The UW administrators who have come out in favor of the public authority fare little better in one’s speculation. The most charitable available interpretation is that they see an opportunity to free themselves from the control of a hostile and capricious legislative majority. But their professed enthusiasm for the corporate-style managerial powers that would likely accrue to them under the new plan—notably, the power to issue debt and control tuition rates—is, if anything, a little too genuine.

It is, of course, possible that a future UW Public Authority could have advantages over the current UW System. But it is painfully obvious at this point that none of the major players on either side of the absurd cuts-for-public authority “deal” is interested in taking the time to find out, much less to make the case to the public.

We are sprinting onto the diving board. Let’s pray there’s water in the pool.

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