Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

UW leadership’s dangerous tuition game

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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.

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