Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

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.


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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UW leadership’s dangerous tuition game

The UW System’s most powerful administrators—including at least the system president, the chancellors at Madison and Milwaukee, and several members of the Board of Regents—have publicly expressed their support for Scott Walker’s proposal to convert the system from a state agency to a public authority. This conversion would free the UW from various state-imposed restrictions and generally give the Board of Regents far greater autonomy to run things as it sees fit, free from legislative oversight. But now the specter of sharp tuition increases after 2017 has thrown a wrench into the works. UW leadership, having spent the last two weeks championing the public authority model, finds itself poorly positioned on the issue of tuition, and this in turn threatens to become a political albatross for the entire UW System.

The basic dynamics of the situation are very simple. There is a longstanding downward trend in state funding to the UW System, and Walker’s budget would permanently reduce it by a further $150 million per year, or about 13% of the current funding level (itself the result of many recent decreases; meanwhile, CPI-indexed increases would start only in 2018). The “flexibilities” afforded by conversion to a public authority are touted by Walker as sufficient to offset the cuts, but it is now (finally!) generally acknowledged that the $150-million-per-year figure is an utter fabrication, a politician’s demand rather than an accountant’s finding. What can close the gap between Walker’s massive cut and the relatively limited savings that can be achieved by the proposed administrative conversion? Only two things: shuttering units or raising tuition.

Walker’s budget proposal is calculated to ensure that the first option is taken in the near term, as it freezes in-state undergraduate tuition during the 2015-17 biennium (continuing a freeze that has been in force since 2013). What particular form this will take is anybody’s guess: furloughs, large-scale staff consolidation and layoffs, closing down of programs, departments, campuses? The possibilities are being actively debated by administrators across the system as we speak. The result will depend in large part on the final size of the cut, which in turn depends on the outcome of negotiations in the legislature that will take place over the next several months, all the time drawing nearer to July 1, when the new budget must be implemented.

The obvious question is what will happen come 2017. Under the current proposal, at that point the tuition freeze will have expired and the UW will be a public authority controlled by a Board of Regents largely free of legislative oversight. How will UW leadership exercise its newfound ability to breathe after two years of being strangled by Walker and the legislature? Can you guess?

The reality of huge state funding cuts is that they ultimately need to be offset by corresponding increases in tuition. Walker has managed to mask this reality so far through various sorts of disingenuity—his radical overstatement of the money that can be saved by converting to a public authority, his suggestion that a short-term unfunded tuition freeze will make everything okay (when in fact it will compound the problem)—but it is gradually dawning on people just how this book will need to get balanced.

Which brings us back to UW leadership: as champions of the public authority conversion, they also own its consequences. And while they have been very vocal that Walker’s proposed cuts are too large, they have also become de facto advocates of the only mathematically available solution to the cuts: major increases in tuition starting in 2017. Thus UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said on Friday, in response to the news that Walker and other Republicans are considering a CPI-pegged cap on future tuition increases, that such a cap would “actively harm” the university. UW leadership is caught with its political pants down: having made a deal with the devil to get out from under the control of a hostile legislature, they now see the deal being altered and their impure intentions exposed. Walker has abandoned all pretense of the public authority being a solution to anything: it is an expedient for justifying the cuts, nothing more (though it does the carry the side benefit of eroding statutory protections for faculty). The inexorable tuition explosion that will result is proving to be politically untenable, and Walker has moved immediately to head it off, consequences be damned. And UW leadership, having adopted a posture of supporting the public authority on principled grounds, is left in the politically deadly position of having to fight for the power to raise tuition arbitrarily.

Perhaps the best hope for all of us at this point is that the math and the politics of the public authority conversion become messy enough that the whole thing is tabled for another budget cycle. The initial reaction to Walker’s budget has been by and large a pro-UW one. Let’s hope that UW leadership’s ill-considered advocacy of the public authority model doesn’t undo the goodwill generated so far.

About those tools…

How will the UW System absorb Scott Walker’s permanent $150-million-per-year cut in state funding? The suggestion from the outset has been that the “flexibilities” afforded by converting the UW from a state agency to a public authority will make up for the lost state funding. Unencumbered by state procurement rules and other restrictions, the UW Public Authority will have the Act 10-style “tools” it needs to make up for the losses. Never mind that the Walker administration has not produced any study or analysis showing that the $150-million-per-year figure is a realistic one; the logic of the cuts-for-tools deal between Walker and UW System President Ray Cross can at least be stated with a straight face, provided you don’t look too hard at the actual numbers.

But this week has brought a flurry of changes and updates, as people have begun to take a closer look at the tools. At his public forum on Tuesday morning, UWM Chancellor Mark Mone noted that Walker’s proposed budget has the cuts beginning on July 1, 2015, while the UW Public Authority comes into existence exactly one year later, on July 1, 2016. In other words, the amount of money that would be saved in the 2015-16 fiscal year by conversion to a public authority would be exactly $0. So much for offsetting the first year’s $150 million cut. Your tools are on back-order…for a year.

By Wednesday, Walker’s spokespeople were hedging furiously, asserting that the UW System needn’t absorb the $300 million in cuts evenly over the two years of the 2015-17 biennium and proposing that the public authority could be created sooner. Your tools are actually in stock, they’re just in our warehouse across town.

Then, today, Walker suggested that he is open to the possibility of capping tuition increases at the rate of inflation starting in 2017, when his currently proposed tuition freeze is set to expire. On second thought, we’ll be keeping your tools in our garage. (We’re still smashing your car, though.)

The takeaway from the week’s rapidly changing budget landscape is that the tools part of the cuts-for-tools deal is very much subject to revision. The cuts, not so much, at least not publicly so far. There is plenty of speculation that the size of the cuts might be reduced through negotiations in the legislature. But to date, Scott Walker seems open to changing literally any part of the deal except the massive cuts themselves. This, of course, totally demolishes Walker’s already half-hearted conceit that he cares about offsetting the cuts. On Monday, the cuts-for-tools deal might have seemed on the level, if dubious in motivation and mathematically challenged. By Thursday, Walker revealed it to be an utter charade.

As if any more evidence of the Walker administration’s bad faith were necessary, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch told reporters on Wednesday that, in the event that spring tax receipts are higher than currently projected, the extra money should go toward…new tax cuts. Even Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Mr. Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever himself, wouldn’t go so far, saying that the legislature’s priorities would be softening the cuts to UW and K-12 education.

As we learn more about the public authority model, it becomes less and less clear why anyone who works or studies at the UW would be in favor of it. Rather than step back and study what this massive change would entail and what savings it might plausibly bring, Walker is instead proposing to rush even faster into the unknown. And for Cross and the various UW chancellors who have come out in favor of the public authority, Walker’s proposed tuition-increase cap is surely a bitter pill. As Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noterman of UW-Madison wrote this week, the debt-issuing power of public authorities—one of the key flexibilities afforded under the model—is often backed by future tuition as collateral. But Walker and the legislature may find it impossible to relinquish control of such a politically sensitive power, leaving the future UW Public Authority’s bonding power seriously hamstrung.

This deal is getting worse all the time.

The Wisconsin Idea: Show me the money!

Scott Walker’s now-scuttled proposal to scrap the Wisconsin Idea—the search for truth, the duty to extend the benefits of the university beyond the borders of campus, etc.—has generated national media attention. The small-minded, mean-spirited nature of the language change caused far more widespread offense than Walker seems to have anticipated, and his clumsy backpedaling over the proposal and its withdrawal—the initial claim that it was a “drafting error” was quickly revealed to be a lie—drew immediate scrutiny from a national press trying to assess the personal character and political acumen of Walker, an increasingly prominent Republican presidential hopeful.

So it is with no small amount of exasperation that we in Wisconsin now see some national media commentators expressing relief that Walker has “backed down” from his unthinkable proposal. To be sure, removing the Wisconsin Idea from state law was a symbolic affront to human decency and dignity, and at the level of symbolism, things have now been put back in their proper place. Walker’s budget proposal, however, couples that symbolic blow with a very real, material one: a $300 million cut to the UW System over the coming two years, the start of a permanent 13% reduction in state funding. This unprecedentedly massive cut, which will do far more real-world damage to Wisconsin universities and their students than any mission statement rewording ever could, is still very much on the table.

We find ourselves at a place of symbolism without substance. You cannot support the ideals embodied in the Wisconsin Idea while simultaneously imposing the largest budget cut in the university’s history. The great successes of the UW System, its value to the state, the incalculable inheritance it represents, are all the result of the far-sighted material investment the state has made over the course of decades. You want to keep the Wisconsin Idea while slashing that investment? I call bullshit.

The Wisconsin Idea doesn’t come for free.

Indeed, almost everyone in Wisconsin outside of Walker’s inner circle seems to understand the calamity that will ensue if his proposed UW budget becomes law. Walker insists that his proposal to convert the UW System from a state agency to a public authority will generate savings sufficient to offset the cut (never mind the simultaneous unfunded tuition freeze). But this is a massive administrative change, one that will take years to carry through. Any savings will emerge only slowly, over the course of years, but the permanent 13% cut is to begin immediately, on July 1.

There is also a notable absence of evidence or analysis to support Walker’s specific savings claims. Walker says he wants to limit the scope of discussion to “debate about what is the real amount of savings that can be generated by an authority, which we believe is worth $150 million a year.” Everyone in Wisconsin should be asking: Why do you believe this? Where does this number come from? If the Walker administration has produced a report or analysis detailing how they arrived at the $150-million-a-year figure, they certainly haven’t shared it with the public. On the contrary, Walker seems to have plucked this eye-poppingly large number out of thin air in order to impress the small national circle of blue-chip Republican presidential donors.

People in Wisconsin are quickly realizing that Walker is governing with both eyes on next year’s presidential race. Wisconsin Republicans who are politically able to question Walker—those who don’t covet a spot in a potential Walker administration or have any national political aspirations of their own—have begun to speak out against the UW cuts. Like them, we need to keep the focus here in Wisconsin. We need to keep the focus on the students and families who will be left with huge tuition increases to attend diminished universities come 2017. Those of us who care more about Wisconsin and its public inheritance than about securing a patron for 2016 need to speak out, now.

The Wisconsin Idea media cycle has already run its course. The symbolic victory of preserving the UW mission statement will be hollow indeed if it is not followed by a successful movement to combat the very real threat to the UW System and its students that remains.

If Scott Walker truly believes in the Wisconsin Idea, it’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is.


“Banana, buck”: Walker’s tuition time bomb

In his press releases of the past few days, Scott Walker has been at pains to emphasize that his 2015-17 proposals for the UW System include freezing in-state undergraduate tuition. Walker has found himself in damage control mode, both over his overweening (and hastily withdrawn) proposal to strike the Wisconsin Idea from state law, and over his proposal to cut $300 million in state funding from the UW System. Walker is well aware of the political sensitivity of UW tuition. Here is what he had to say yesterday:

“In the 2003/05 state budget, former Governor Jim Doyle cut the UW by $250 million. He did not give them reforms to make up for the lost state aid. They made up most of it with higher tuition. Our proposal gives new cost-saving reforms to the UW through an authority—while freezing tuition.”

A tuition freeze without additional state funding to offset it is a classic example of an unfunded mandate. State government is telling the UW System that it cannot exercise one of its standard options for coping with increased operating costs (electricity, health care, promotions, etc.), but is providing no money to compensate for the prohibition. Walker’s suggestion is that the “new cost-saving reforms” in his budget—namely, the conversion of the UW System from a state agency overseen by elected representatives into a public authority overseen by gubernatorial appointees—can compensate for the tuition freeze. In other words, the “tools” that the UW gains through structural reform can, in effect, fund the mandated tuition freeze. Whether the reforms can fully offset a tuition freeze is debatable, but at least it’s a coherent position.

What is not coherent, or even remotely defensible, is Walker’s suggestion that the conversion to a public authority can simultaneously make up for the additional $300 million cut he is proposing over the coming two years, the start of a permanent 13% reduction in state funding to UW. Walker is putting the UW System in a double bind: cuts on one side, tuition freeze on the other. The effect of this, if it becomes law, will be to strangle the UW System for the next two years. The public authority reforms will not come anywhere close to making up for the loss of $150 million per year in perpetuity, let alone that amount *plus* a tuition freeze. Come 2017, when the freeze expires and the legislature no longer controls the UW, students would be paying greatly increased tuition to attend the diminished universities that emerge on the other side of this biennium from hell.


Walker, of course, never comes right out and admits that his reforms are meant to do this double duty. Indeed, he invokes the tuition freeze in the hope of reassuring students and parents that the cuts won’t be that bad. But let’s be real: imposing a massive budget cut and then suggesting that its ill effects can be offset with a tuition freeze is the university budgeting equivalent of stealing from the cash drawer and trying to cover it up by throwing away your inventory. This is the height of bad faith. Any manager or executive who proposed such a thing in earnest would be fired on the spot.

Wisconsin students and parents shouldn’t be fooled. Walker’s proposal for UW is a tuition time bomb set for 2017.