Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

UW post-mortem: outcomes

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In the wake of JFC’s disastrous UW System omnibus bill passed last Friday, here are a few reflections on the role of UW System administrative leadership in getting us to this point and the consequences for the various parties involved. An assessment of outcomes, if you will.

From the perspective of faculty, academic staff, classified staff, and students, System leadership’s strategy of accommodation and non-confrontation with the Legislature looks like a spectacular failure. Tenure and shared governance are gone; indefinite status for academic staff is gone; students’ role in shared governance is gone. We have a $250 million cut, an unfunded tuition freeze, and no “stable and predictable” funding increases scheduled for the future. The notion that the much-touted “flexibilities” somehow depended on the public authority structure has likewise been shown to be false: section 19 of the omnibus bill exempts the UW System from state law governing purchasing and procurement by state agencies. It’s two sentences long; easy peasy.

From the perspective of System administrators, things look rather different. While tenure can be nominally reimplemented in Board of Regents policy (even if section 39 of the omnibus bill kills it in practice; but please do sign this petition!), shared governance is definitively neutered in statute. Legislative leaders have loudly declared their intention to make chancellors more like CEOs, and our local right-wing think-tank community wants to go even further. Against this backdrop, UW System leaders’ public statements in response to JFC’s omnibus bill—statements whose overriding tone is one of gratitude undergirded by obsequiousness—make perfect sense, even as they alternately disgust and infuriate the rest of us. Amid the general calamity for faculty, academic staff, classified staff, and students, there is an alignment of legislative priorities with administrative interests.

The question is what will be left for our newly empowered chancellors to preside over. The question is perhaps most pressing for the system flagship, UW-Madison. While Madison is the campus best able to weather the financial challenges of the $250 million cut, it is also the campus most vulnerable to the financial fallout of faculty poaching and defection: it has the farthest to fall. As scholars depart and take their external funding with them, the $250 million cut in state support will represent an ever larger proportion of the System’s total budget.

The big fish in UW administration are getting bigger, and the pond is getting smaller. The rest of us may have to evolve and take our chances on dry land. God help the students.

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