Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Laboratories of austerity

UW-Stevens Point has attracted national attention for its administration’s plan to shutter the bulk of its majors in the humanities and social sciences. UW-Superior’s administration summarily suspended 25 programs in October, sidestepping the governance process and triggering a vote of no confidence in the chancellor. And the UW Colleges and Extension is being dissolved as a freestanding institution, its 13 campuses to be absorbed by nearby UW universities barely 9 months after UW System President Ray Cross’s surprise restructuring announcement last fall.

In other words, we are now seeing exactly the kinds of developments that were made possible by the statutory changes to tenure and shared governance in 2015 and the resulting Regent policies on faculty termination via program change, which triggered no confidence votes in Cross and the Regents across the System in the spring of 2016. The ideological vision behind those changes is apparent in the squeezing of campus budgets and in the content of the resulting program change proposals, which uniformly point toward narrow job training and “career pathways” and away from the broad educational mission that makes a university what it is.

The elitism underpinning this set of developments has not gone unnoticed. The Colleges’ predicament was accelerated by the 2015 regionalization of administrative services, taking advising and other support away from where it was most needed on the System’s open-door campuses. The UW-Superior administration struck a remarkably patronizing tone, suggesting that its many first-generation students might be overwhelmed by the range of choices available at a truly comprehensive university. And the UW-Stevens Point administration has spun a tendentious hunch about its students’ career planning into a suggestion that they seek fancy things like English and history degrees elsewhere. This is not a strategic retreat from the educational ideal so that the university might be saved; it is an abandonment of our neediest students, of entire regions in central and northern Wisconsin, and of the democratizing mission of the public university.

The Stevens Point situation, in particular, cannot be understood in isolation from that of the Colleges. Stevens Point is set to absorb two Colleges campuses this summer. The Colleges restructuring was undertaken ostensibly to address a budget and enrollment crisis; merger with nearby UW institutions was presented as a favorable alternative to closing multiple campuses. What has never been made clear, however, is how the merger is supposed to mitigate any of the underlying issues. By going this route, Cross and the Regents have delayed the Colleges’ reckoning until after the reelection campaign of the governor who appointed them, and have offloaded responsibility for the truly tough decisions to local campus administrations, to boot. We’ll soon see what emerges from these laboratories of austerity.

Finally, it bears mentioning that the amounts of money involved here are not large. UW-Stevens Point’s administration says it is aiming to close a $4.5 million two-year budget gap. At UW-Superior, the budget deficit is $2.5 million. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Legislature approved $3 million in new funding in the 2017-19 biennium for a new “public leadership” center named after former GOP governor Tommy Thompson…at UW-Madison.

As the saying goes, show me your budget and I’ll show you your values. There is money to preserve and enhance UW-Superior, UW-Stevens Point, and the UW Colleges. There is money to restore Wisconsin’s commitment to world-class public higher education for all. The infrastructure is there, built by generations. It’s not a hard lift for us now. It just requires leadership willing to make the choice.


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