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.

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