Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Stable and predictable, or at least predictable

UW System President Ray Cross visited UWM on Wednesday for our latest public forum on the budget, one of a series of visits he has been making to UW campuses this week. During the Q&A session, I asked him to elaborate on the proposed future funding source for the UW System, which Cross has consistently and approvingly characterized as “stable and predictable”.

By way of background: the funding proposal in Walker’s budget calls for a permanent $150-million-per-year cut in funding to the UW System, with funding increases pegged to the Consumer Price Index beginning in 2018. The base multiplier for those CPI-pegged increases would be $753 million, which is equal to the current amount of state support to the System (roughly $1.2 billion), minus $150 million, minus what the state gives the System for debt service and a few other items. Walker’s proposal is for the future funding to come from sales tax. The proposal, of course, is also for that funding to go to the future UW System Authority, but we have seen in the last two weeks that the public authority proposal is all but dead in the legislature.

With that said, let’s assume for argument’s sake that this funding plan will apply to an administratively unchanged UW System. There are two major components to the funding plan, and they take effect at different times. First, there is the drastic reduction in funding: $150 million per year, which is equal to about 13% of current state support, an unprecedentedly large cut (though not by much; see below). That happens immediately, on July 1 of this year. Second, there are the annual CPI-pegged increases, which are quite modest (roughly 2% per year, calculated on a drastically reduced overall base) but nonetheless welcome. Those don’t kick in until 2018. In other words, the cut is an imminent threat that the current legislature has the power to carry out; the “stability and predictability” is a far-off promise that must be kept by the next legislature and its successors.

I asked Cross on Wednesday whether there is any mechanism in the current proposal that would make it difficult for future legislatures to renege on the promised stability and predictability. The answer was no. Cross correctly pointed out that, with the proposed funding base and CPI-pegged increases written into law now, future legislatures would have to take affirmative steps in order to alter them. If our current experience with Chapter 36 is any indication, however, it is fair to say that the Republican majority that now dominates the legislature (and that promises to remain in power until at least 2020) is not shy about taking such steps.

Indeed, if there is anything predictable about our current legislative majority, it is its relentless drive to cut taxes. Walker and the legislature have cut taxes numerous times since taking power in 2011. Several key Republican legislators, including two current members of the Joint Finance Committee (Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Senator Leah Vukmir) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, have taken the Americans for Tax Reform pledge never to raise taxes, as has Walker. For all the stability in UW funding promised by the current legislature on behalf of its successors, and loudly touted by Cross, the overwhelming likelihood is that the legislature will cut taxes again at its first opportunity, and this will in turn require further funding cuts to UW and other reductions in state spending. As UW Regent David Walsh put it at the Board of Regents meeting on March 5, this legislature’s promise of stability and predictability is so much “fairy dust“.

The larger pattern of shifting higher education costs from the state to students, of course, extends far beyond Wisconsin and has been a mainstay of both Republican and Democratic governments in recent years. As Robin Vos has been quick to point out, Wisconsin’s previous governor, the Democrat Jim Doyle, cut funding to the UW System by $250 million in his 2003-05 budget. In the next breath, Vos takes the UW System to task for having dramatically increased tuition in response to Doyle’s cut, and contrasts that with the tuition freeze that is proposed to accompany Walker’s $300 million cut. In less politically interested terms, we might say that Doyle knew the UW System couldn’t survive a major budget cut intact but was content to shift some of the costs of running the System onto its students. Walker and Vos, by contrast, want to have their political cake and eat it too, shifting costs away from the state while denying UW even the neoliberal lifeline of drastic tuition increases it had previously been afforded.

Walker and Vos’s rhetoric around tuition seeks to shift attention away from the legislature’s continual disinvestment and toward instructional costs. But, as stated by UWM University Committee members and Distinguished Professors Mark Schwartz (at last Friday’s Joint Finance Committee hearing at Alverno College) and Margo Anderson (at Wednesday’s forum with Cross at UWM), inflation-adjusted per-student instructional costs at UWM have remained flat since 1980. While this aggregate number conceals some disturbing trends—in particular, it elides the growing proportion of instructional work done by adjuncts and other contingent instructors in order to maintain that constant instructional cost—it absolutely demolishes Vos’s implication that tuition increases are somehow the result of tenure and shared governance, which have remained unchanged in statute over the whole period. Tuition has risen to offset state disinvestment, period. In 1980, state funding paid for 75% of the cost of instruction, with tuition making up the remaining 25%. Today, those proportions have nearly flipped, with state funding paying for 32% of that cost (which, recall, has not risen beyond the rate of inflation) and tuition making up the remaining 68%. Faculty may be a convenient scapegoat, but the problem of rising tuition is one almost entirely of the legislature’s own making.

What we need from our System President, then, is the courage to tell legislators that continued funding cuts will make outsize tuition increases a mathematical inevitability, and that unfunded tuition freeze gimmicks will only exacerbate the problem. We need someone to present a narrative of public higher education that can outshine the lodestar of tax cuts and Grover Norquist, a narrative that portrays cost-shifting onto students not as an efficient practice with bipartisan appeal, but as a repugnant abdication of our basic responsibilities. What we need from UW leaders, in short, is a moral theory of the public university. What we have seen so far from Ray Cross, at least in public, is a series of modest complaints about the details of a larger framework towards which he has signaled his near-total acquiescence, not to say complicity.

There seems to be some hope that Cross will get the cut reduced and preserve tenure and shared governance in the near term (indeed, he has now famously pledged to resign should he fail to do so), and it is certainly to his credit that he is working hard to accomplish this. But without a coherent narrative about state support for public higher education and its dominant role in affecting tuition, about the only thing we can predict is that this stability will prove fleeting.


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.