Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

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Austerity at UWM: CCOET

Budget cutting is in full swing at UW-Milwaukee. Beyond the loss of meaningful tenure protections (underscored by recent developments with the Regents’ Tenure Policy Task Force) and the gutting of shared governance, UWM faces a looming financial crisis. The crisis is the result of the massive 2015–17 biennial budget cut in combination with a variety of other factors. UWM’s chancellor, Mark Mone, has convened two groups to deal with the crisis: the Budget Planning Task Force, which has dealt with allocating the $30 million in cuts to UWM over the 2015–17 biennium, and the Chancellor’s Campus Organization and Effectiveness Team (CCOET), which is tasked with making recommendations for long-term structural changes to shrink the institution.

The bottom-line goal for CCOET is to cut $15–$20 million from UWM’s annual budget, permanently. CCOET has thus become the visible locus of austerity on campus. Its meetings, which are open to the public, are starting to attract crowds. Transparency, inclusion, and openness are the watchwords. The reality is a bit more complicated.

When asked about the relationship of CCOET to existing shared governance groups on campus, administrators have emphasized the degree to which CCOET’s membership includes representatives from those groups: the University Committee, the Faculty Senate, the Academic Staff Committee, the Student Association, and even our campus AAUP chapter all have members on CCOET. This is a canny way of constructing a committee whose membership is, in the end, dominated by administrators. Somewhat more troublingly, administrators’ responses to date indicate that this sprinkling of representatives is meant to serve as a kind of proxy for actual shared governance. It should be lost on no one that CCOET is, from a governance perspective, simply an extension of the chancellor, and that it therefore bears exactly the same relationship to other governance bodies that the chancellor himself does.

Sitting as it does in this uneasy space in the new shared governance landscape, CCOET’s role and powers have taken on a shape-shifting quality, changing to suit the purpose at hand. On the one hand, the committee is obviously meant to hash out the gory details of the campus’s downsizing: the task is enormous, with huge consequences for the institution, and all the heavies are there. On the other hand, the committee co-chairs often step back and remind us that they are simply generating recommendations to submit to the chancellor, as if to establish plausible deniability in the face of questions about adherence to established governance practices. The chancellor, meanwhile, indicated at today’s campus budget forum that he hopes to begin implementing CCOET’s recommendations within a matter of weeks after they are submitted to him in February, a timeline that holds out almost no hope of a meaningful vetting by the Faculty Senate or any other shared governance body.

The substance of those recommendations, meanwhile, remains a major unknown. CCOET has exhorted the campus community to give it its best ideas about how to restructure the campus to save money. Those calls ring hollow in the absence of detailed, interpreted, publicly available financial data on which to base such ideas. CCOET has trumpeted its transparency, and it is certainly to be commended for holding open meetings and posting meeting notes and selected data presentations on its website. But CCOET, or a subset of its members, is very obviously working with far more financial data than has been shared with the campus. This is, to some extent, inevitable: university budgeting is complex, and even the best-informed CCOET members have remarked publicly on the ways in which they have only belatedly come to understand certain aspects and implications of the data. It is not in and of itself a problem that CCOET has more data, or a clearer interpretation of the available data, than everyone else does at this point. What is a problem is that CCOET will soon be making detailed proposals on how to proceed, without the campus community (or, if last week’s meeting is any indication, even the entirety of its own membership) having had access to that same set of interpreted financial data. How can CCOET’s members, much less the broader campus community, assess the merits of a funding formula with very disparate impacts on UWM’s different schools and colleges without having had the chance to consider other possibilities? The accelerated timeline and the asymmetry of access ensure that only a select few will have an adequate factual basis for making recommendations; everything else is moot.

Meanwhile, CCOET’s recommendations will come on the heels of the FY16 and FY17 cuts enacted by the Budget Planning Task Force. The FY16 cuts were decided on over the summer, but, rather amazingly, the campus administration still does not have a comprehensive picture of what has actually been cut. Those FY16 cuts were one-time cuts in the amount of $15.7 million, coming in part from spending down the campus’s now almost entirely depleted reserves. The chancellor has now accepted the BPTF’s recommendations for the FY17 cuts, which are permanent base-budget cuts of $14.5 million, $8.8 million of which will come out of Academic Affairs. Details of the FY16 cuts have now been collected and will be shared with everyone soon; units have until Dec 23 to provide details on how they will handle the FY17 cuts. Meanwhile, CCOET is working on further permanent cuts of $15–$20 million, doing the bulk of its work without any detailed knowledge of the cuts that have gone before.

So, we are rushing headlong into an extraordinary budget-cutting process that, for all its invocation of inclusiveness and transparency, will be decided by those few who have both the information necessary to make concrete recommendations (or something approaching it) and the power to enact them. Top administrators and CCOET members insist that the research mission of the university is not on the table; but it is hard to avoid the feeling that CCOET’s work amounts to flinging the entire institution against the wall and seeing what sticks. Meanwhile, rumblings about cuts to the UW System in the 2017–19 biennium have already begun.