Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

UW tuition: going the wrong way

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What is behind the recent upward surge in the cost of tuition at public universities? This question has seen some lively debate in recent weeks, spurred in part by the publication of a New York Times op-ed by Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado. Campos takes aim at the conventional wisdom that tuition increases are largely due to declines in state funding. He argues instead that tuition increases are the result of the disproportionate growth of university administrations, which, as others have noted, has gone hand in hand with a trend towards privatization and financialization of public university operations (debt-funded building and expansion projects, university involvement in quasi-private ventures of various kinds, to say nothing of the immoderate upswings in the salaries of the ever more numerous administrators themselves).*

Chris Newfield has a very thorough take-down of Campos on his blog: in short, Campos is right that administrative bloat is a problem, but his argument about state funding is just absurdly wrong. I don’t have the expertise to add much to what Newfield says. The declines in state funding are real. Real, too, are the explosive growth of the administrative class and the supreme fungibility (and, thus, desirability) of tuition dollars vs. other forms of university revenue. On the one hand, tuition goes up when state funding drops; on the other, it is advantageous for anyone in a position of administrative power to maximize the proportion of the money at their disposal that comes from tuition.

The obvious corollary is that, in order to stem the tide of tuition increases, we should seek to stabilize or increase state funding and curb the power of administrators. Notably, Scott Walker’s proposed funding and administrative changes to the UW System do the opposite on both scores.

Walker recognized the political sensitivity of UW tuition early on in the budget process, and this week he repeated his call for tuition increases after 2017 to be capped at the level of the consumer price index. This would actually be a laudable proposal if it weren’t so utterly cynical. It has been clear all along that, as far as the budget process is concerned, Walker sees the UW System as an ATM from which he is making a hefty withdrawal. Everything else is pure political expediency: converting the system to a public authority will pay for the cuts (quickly revealed to be a complete fiction), tuition will be “market-based” after 2017 so UW can be flexible and nimble (hastily withdrawn in the face of fears over major tuition hikes), the 2015-17 tuition freeze means the cuts won’t be so bad for students (it will only make the problems of course availability, time to degree, and, eventually, tuition, much worse), and on and on. Keep talking, and you may just get away with the cash.

While Walker hasn’t budged on the $300 million figure and this week reiterated his support for the proposed public authority conversion—i.e., he doubled down on the two proposals that are all but guaranteed to force big tuition increases within a few years—there have been signals that many on the Joint Finance Committee of the Legislature would like to reduce the size of the cut (which is opposed by 70% of Wisconsin registered voters, according to the latest Marquette Law poll), and JFC co-chair John Nygren this week repeated his strong opposition to the public authority.

While this is a slight improvement over what Walker is proposing, it’s hardly a victory for anyone concerned about tuition, and not just because of the numbers. There is a problem of principle, too: when Assembly Republicans began distancing themselves from the public authority proposal in the wake of the March Board of Regents meeting, their stated rationale was that the Regents were “not ready” for the proposed autonomy because they were unwilling to gut tenure and shared governance. When he appeared on the Joy Cardin Show last month, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos suggested that shared governance takes up too much of the faculty’s time, and worried that campuses might be wasting money by doling out course releases for service on the faculty senate (which, for the record, is not actually a thing that happens).

Whatever one might make of the social and cultural factors behind this animus towards faculty, the drive to eliminate tenure and shared governance flies in the face of these legislators’ stated desire to hold tuition in check. Faculty, as Chuck Rybak helpfully reminds us, do not actually get to set tuition rates. Faculty salaries have, per Newfield, stagnated in real terms since 1970. The independence and academic freedom that faculty enjoy under the system of tenure and shared governance are too often mistaken for concentrated institutional power. The Republican push to strip away that independence, if successful, will do nothing to hold down tuition. On the contrary, it will consolidate even more power in the hands of administrators, putting it precisely where it can most readily be converted into outsize increases in tuition.

And indeed, how did UW System President Ray Cross react to Walker’s renewed call for a CPI-pegged cap on tuition increases after 2017? He said, “Many legislators and stakeholders agree that this kind of price control is not compatible with the agile, market-driven and competitive entity the state needs us to be,” which is more or less the management-speak version of “Are you fucking kidding me?” Meanwhile, the Board of Regents at its meeting last week approved the first two years of a four-year plan by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to increase out-of-state and graduate/professional tuition dramatically.

For anyone who is actually concerned about UW tuition, in other words, the twin movements to slash state funding and eliminate faculty protections represent a triumph of political spite over economic logic. Shared governance may not have a clear analogue in the business world, but it is one of the few checks on administrative power within the university (as forcefully articulated by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Chad Alan Goldberg here), and thus one of the few internal forces that can be deployed against those most directly responsible for tuition increases that go beyond what is needed to offset state cuts. As for those cuts, they should obviously be eliminated and reversed. At the moment our Legislature, in thrall to Grover Norquist, is praying for rain in the form of spring tax receipts, but in the longer term we will need legislators with the stomach to raise revenue, or cancel scheduled tax cuts, or accept massive sums of no-strings-attached Federal money. We may also need a governor who is unwilling to sacrifice his state’s entire public education system on the altar of his perplexingly plausible presidential aspirations.

In an ideal world, the governor’s proposal to cap future tuition increases would be matched by a legislative commitment to fund the system accordingly, and a strong shared governance system that limits both the size and the power of administrative overhead. In reality, we are going in the opposite direction on both fronts. The consequences for tuition are as sadly easy to predict as they are politically difficult to prevent.

*(Anecdotally, here at UWM we have had some high-level administrators in recent years receive raises in excess of the starting salary of, say, an assistant professor of linguistics.)

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