Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


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Stop making sense

In the wake of the UW System Board of Regents’ decision last week to “pretend to have tenure”, System leaders are coming to acknowledge more and more in their public statements the correctness of the worries they have simultaneously attempted to depict as alarmist. The very grave problem posed by section 39 of the JFC omnibus motion is finally on the public radar of UW administrators, though they continue to soft-pedal its severity.

Here is the relevant portion of Chapter 36.21 as it currently stands: “Notwithstanding ss. 36.13 (4) and 36.15, the board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when a financial emergency exists.”

The JFC motion hasn’t yet been publicly released in the form of proposed statutory language, but when section 39 is incorporated into statute, the relevant portion of 36.21 (or its replacement) will likely end up looking something like this: “Notwithstanding [potential replacements of to-be-deleted tenure/indefinite status provisions], the board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.”

The Board of Regents at its meeting last week did not even entertain the idea of adopting the current 36.21 language as Board policy, as it did with the current 36.13 language around dismissal. There may be a variety of reasons for this, but here is an obvious and politically disinterested one: the new statutory language emanating from section 39 will logically entail the old 36.21 language. Financial emergency is just a special case of the much broader conditions outlined in section 39, and so putting the old 36.21 into Board policy would be completely ineffectual. (On the other hand, specifying in Board policy that termination could happen “only when a financial emergency exists” would be a far more stringent condition, and so would contradict statute.)

System President Ray Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank are apparently now working actively to remove the section 39 provisions from the budget, and this is indeed welcome news. At the same time, they are attempting to reassure everyone that something like adequate tenure protections can be maintained even if section 39 stays in. This was stated by Cross in his weekend email to chancellors (as reported by Karen Herzog yesterday) and by Blank in her message to the UW-Madison community today. Here is the relevant excerpt from Blank’s message: “Section 39 isn’t a command or directive. It merely authorizes the Board of Regents to lay-off faculty for the stated reasons. The Regents can decide when and how they want to invoke that authority.”

In other words, Cross, Blank, and other UW administrators are attempting to hang a meaningful set of tenure protections on the “deemed necessary” hook in the anticipated statutory language. They think they have found a loophole; I’m not a lawyer, but count me as highly skeptical. The problem comes down, once again, to the difficulty of finding a way to articulate conditions under which the actions could be “deemed necessary” that doesn’t conflict with statute, which will specifically outline a broad set of conditions of just this type. For instance, the proposed conditions certainly couldn’t limit such actions to cases of financial emergency, for reasons outlined above.

The Board of Regents can, as a matter of informal practice, “decide when and how” to use the powers granted to it by the Legislature. But it cannot formally adopt a written policy that forbids it from using its statutory authority. That would be, in the most literal sense, against the law. (And of course, this whole discussion sets aside the very open question of whether the present Board of Regents has any interest in forswearing the broad firing powers that JFC wants to give it.)

The only hope for tenure in the UW System is for section 39 to be removed from the budget. As my colleague Richard Grusin put it yesterday, Wisconsin is about to go from being the only state with tenure in statute to being the only state with broad provisions for firing tenured faculty in statute.

A final note: it will be important for UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee faculty to maintain their current mobilization in the event that the section 39 language becomes law. The threat against tenure and shared governance (including for academic staff and students) is a universal one. In practice, the firing ax, if and when it falls, is likely to fall first and most heavily at the UW Colleges and the 11 four-year non-doctoral campuses, far from Milwaukee and especially from Madison. For all the ideological animus behind the attack on tenure and shared governance, the motivation is perhaps most immediately a financial one. The Madison faculty’s preeminence in winning external funding means that the savings from firing the average Madison faculty member is likely lower than at any other UW campus, and in many cases there would be a large net cost to the System; and likewise, though to a far lesser extent, for Milwaukee.

As our state government turns the austerity screws, those who fare best under its logic must not abandon the principled fight that, for the moment, has united faculty across the UW System.


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Post-tenure review: BOR-ed to death

Reader, I was there: at yesterday’s meeting of the Education Committee of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, held here at UWM, where a resolution on tenure was taken up; where faculty from UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee addressed the Regents about the importance of tenure and questioned the motivation for altering its legal status and definition; and where a symbolic but nonetheless significant amendment asking the Legislature to remove nonfiscal items from section 39 of JFC’s omnibus motion #521 of last Friday was snuffed out, on a party-line vote, in a bit of well-orchestrated parliamentary sabotage.

The existing statutory protections for tenured and tenure-track faculty in the UW System consist of two parts, one limiting the grounds for “dismissal” and the other providing an override permitting “termination”. Chapter 36.13 says that faculty “may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing”; but Chapter 36.21 adds that, notwithstanding those and related provisions, “the board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when a financial emergency exists.” In other words, a faculty member can be fired and their position refilled only if there is “just cause” for doing so; but if a financial emergency forces the elimination of the position altogether, a faculty member can be fired absent any independent just cause. The various penalties and other difficulties attendant upon declaring a financial emergency are severe, and the existing protections for faculty are correspondingly quite strong.

The current talking point among Republican legislators and many Regents is that tenure is being moved from statute into Board policy. Quite apart from the question of why one would do this in the absence of a desire to weaken tenure protections (the oft-repeated point that Wisconsin is the only state where tenure resides in statute is just an observation, not an argument), this way of framing the matter obscures what is actually happening. The dismissal provisions of 36.13 are being deleted from statute and copied into Board policy; but the termination override language of 36.21 is being drastically expanded in statute by JFC in section 39 of the omnibus motion. The Education Committee yesterday, and the full Board today, voted not to exhort the Legislature to drop the expanded termination language from statute. If that language becomes law, the restraints previously imposed by the financial emergency condition will be completely removed, and essentially any program change, reorganization, or downsizing initiative can be used as a reason (or a pretext) for terminating faculty.

Animus towards tenure is of course not only a Republican trait: some of the most zealous “school reformers” of recent years are Democrats who have taken aim at tenure for K-12 teachers and principals. More generally, the project of putting private interests in the way of massive public cash flows is a fully bipartisan one.

But the present attack on faculty tenure in the UW System is also part of a particularly Republican project. Specifically, UW faculty tenure is an obstacle to the broader project of dismantling the state. With state appropriations to the UW System having been continually cut (by both Democratic and Republican administrations) over the past fifteen years, we are now at the point where cutting further would require firing faculty. The law is being changed accordingly. As we now know, this is being done with the tacit approval of the Board of Regents, who will oversee the downsizing necessitated by this year’s cuts and those that will surely follow in the future.

Meanwhile, the Regents also moved at this week’s meeting to dramatically expand their power relative to faculty in chancellor searches, in line with the newly downgraded role of faculty in university governance spelled out in the JFC omnibus motion.

There is a slim hope that tenure in the UW System might be saved, but it will require the removal of the section 39 termination language from the budget. The Board of Regents will not advocate for its removal; perhaps individual Regents might. It is incumbent upon faculty to do what little is in their power to generate goodwill with legislators, particularly with those few Republican state senators who might swing the budget vote. One specific action that can be taken is for faculty senates across the UW System to pass resolutions in support of a future cap on tuition increases for resident undergraduates. This might rankle administrators, who have argued vehemently against any such cap, but it would be a good thing for students, and faculty should support it independently of present concerns over tenure. It also happens to be a major concern of State Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).

In all likelihood, we are headed for the elimination of tenure in the UW System in all but name, and its messy fallout: certainly lawsuits, probably censure by professional organizations, possibly even loss of accreditation and access to federal student aid. Some faculty will leave for other universities; many more won’t be able to, for a variety of reasons. But all UW System faculty will have one eye on the door from here on out.


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UW post-mortem: outcomes

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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Bombs away

Today was finally the day for the UW System: a $250 million cut over the 2015–17 biennium, tenure removed from statute, shared governance severely curtailed, no public authority. UW System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents’ response? Declare victory!

Before JFC’s omnibus bill was even passed, Cross and the Regents announced that they would move immediately to enshrine tenure in Board policy at their meeting next week. Meanwhile, one of the two longest and most detailed items in the bill, item 39, is basically a step-by-step guide for firing tenured faculty. The circumstances under which the Board can do this, per JFC’s wording, are essentially limitless: “a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection”. Look for the Legislature to direct the Board to make broader use of these powers in the future should it prove insufficiently keen to do so at the outset. (Update: Item 40 strikes indefinite status for academic staff from statute for those who don’t have it by June 30, 2015, and prohibits its reimplementation in Board policy.)

Also included in the omnibus motion are items removing students’ control over the segregated fees that they charge themselves (items 32 and 37), placing control instead in the hands of campus chancellors; deleting a prohibition against universities’ using students’ social security numbers as their student ID numbers (item 63; who knew the identity theft monitoring lobby held such sway with Wisconsin Republicans? update: read this); and making the Waukesha County executive a chartering authority for charter schools that will receive public funding (buried inside item 70).

The very long item 70, devoted to creating “additional charter school authorizers”, is of a piece with last week’s JFC omnibus K-12 bill, which has garnered national media attention for its cruel and gratuitous assault on public education. That bill set in motion an expansion of Wisconsin’s system of publicly funded private-school vouchers, creating an entirely new government entitlement for the estimated 80% of anticipated voucher applicants who already attend a private school; the cost over the next ten years is pegged at between $600 million and $800 million. It also put forward a plan, authored by two Republican JFC members from the Milwaukee suburbs, to privatize Milwaukee’s “lowest-performing” public schools, on the model of disastrous “recovery” districts that have been created in cities like New Orleans and Detroit; see Jay Bullock’s column of this week for a thorough take-down. And it included a provision removing all licensing requirements for public school teachers; I shit you not.

In short, Wisconsin Republicans have declared total war on public education. Both the K-12 bill and the UW bill were negotiated and written totally in secret by committee Republicans, with the details released to the public only hours before the final, fore-ordained votes were held. Moral and political commitments aside, this leaves one to wonder whether those legislators who are quickest to cite “market-based” considerations have even a basic understanding of what Wisconsin’s comparative advantage is. Wisconsin has a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for its excellent public schools and universities. Without those, what is the point of living in Wisconsin as opposed to some other state? Set aside the fact that no UW campus will ever be able to recruit a top-tier scholar again. Why would anyone choose Wisconsin as a place to raise their family? Why would anyone in their right mind move to Wisconsin after this budget?

The budget still has to pass the full legislature, after which it will be subject to one of the strongest and most wide-ranging gubernatorial veto powers in the country. Some of the truly crazy stuff may yet come out. But a lot will stay in. Public K-12 and the UW System will be badly, perhaps irreparably, damaged.

A lot has already been said today about UW System leadership’s handling of the budget mess, and about Ray Cross’s leadership and negotiating tactics and strategy. I will leave the last word to Board of Regents President Mike Falbo: “With President Cross’s leadership, this new sense of partnership has helped us get to where we are today.”


Done and done

Today it’s official: no new revenue.  The much-hoped-for one-time cash infusion that Republican legislators were counting on in order to paper over the budget disaster they’ve created will not be forthcoming.  Despite having crossed all their fingers and toes, the Spring Revenue Fairy left them nothing.  How disillusioning!  It’s the kind of thing that makes some people stop believing in trickle-down economics.

With the rude if predictable demise of the fantasy, the media has wasted no time in trotting out the “tough choices” narrative to frame the late-stage budget negotiations that will take place in its wake.  Should you for some reason fail to appreciate the abject dishonesty of this narrative, allow Chuck Rybak to disabuse you.  Here’s a rule of thumb: the degree to which the media is carrying the GOP’s water with this framing is directly proportional to the pissiness of the beat writers’ tweets when they get called out.

Walker and legislative leaders immediately announced that they would move some money around to spare public K-12 from the $127 million in cuts that Walker proposed in February.  The details apparently involve monkeying with the timing of scheduled payments, not coming up with any actual new money, with the result that there will be an even bigger hole to fill two years down the road.  Guess where Walker plans to be then?

Where does this leave the UW System?  Can the state ship a briefcase full of cash across the International Date Line for us, too?  Alas, things are more or less where they were: JFC Co-Chair John Nygren still says he wants to reduce the cut, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald still says the UW can go to hell, and Scott Walker and Ray Cross are still talking about flexibilities.

Speaking of which, the other big “no” of the week was announced yesterday: no public authority.  It’s hardly a surprise at this point, but it’s still good to see the proposal officially dead in this budget.  It was never a serious idea.  It was never clear why the touted savings and flexibilities couldn’t be achieved via statute, or what purpose the proposal served other than to distract attention from the massive proposed budget cut.

What remains very much up in the air at this point is the status of Chapter 36.  In Walker’s initial budget proposal, the creation of the public authority went hand in hand with the near-total excision of Chapter 36 from state law: the UW System, tenure, shared governance, Downer Woods, everything.  All of it was to be put in the hands of the Board of Regents.  Now that the public authority is off the table, the only sensible thing for the legislature to do is to retain Chapter 36 intact, in its entirety, in state law.  You don’t push someone out of the plane when you’ve just thrown away their parachute.

Don’t be surprised if they take a quick stab at stitching a new one, though.  JFC now says it won’t send the budget back to the full legislature until the end of May.  UW is slated to be one of the last items voted on.  That’s lots of time for bad ideas to be floated, but also lots of time for UW supporters to organize and lobby legislators.

If nothing else, the existential uncertainty surrounding Chapter 36 should light a fire under the faculty at Madison: the System flagship is the campus best able to shield itself from budgetary threats (even if to the detriment of the rest of us), but on matters of tenure and shared governance, no one stands apart.


Waiting for the dough

Not much news on the state budget front this week.  Why not?  After all, it’s late April, and the Joint Finance Committee has been getting set to wrap up its work and send the budget back to the full legislature for a while now.

In fact, JFC decided not to meet at all this week.  Instead, they have postponed any further meetings and votes until after the April revenue estimates are announced, which is set to happen this coming Monday.

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the ridiculousness of this situation.  The Wisconsin legislature’s very powerful budget committee, whose job is to help set state spending priorities for the coming two years, is waiting on a near-term revenue estimate to determine the fate of public K-12 and the UW System (and much else besides).  Legislators who have wide latitude to craft budget policy in order to achieve their professed goals are throwing up their hands and praying for rain.  The elected leaders who have it in their power to restore full funding for public education in Wisconsin are instead eyeing the Department of Revenue like a bunch of TV weathermen camping out for Punxsutawney fucking Phil.

Will spring tax receipts see their own shadow?  The governor’s office has been hinting furiously that there won’t be much new revenue to work with.  And with our Republican-run state government having deliberately tied one hand behind its budgetary back, that means the proposed cuts likely won’t be reduced by much.  Walker today suggested that he would support a reduction in the cut to UW’s two-year colleges, which, thanks in part to their getting only about a quarter of the per-student funding that Madison enjoys, are facing a true existential threat from the cuts.  UW System President Ray Cross, meanwhile, unaccountably spoke against the idea of sparing the UW Colleges.

Monday should be interesting; more anon.


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“Even less of a commitment”

Today we caught a remarkably (and perhaps unintentionally) clear glimpse of Scott Fitzgerald’s true feelings about UW System funding, courtesy of one little adverb. If you had suspected that Senate Republicans were disinclined to restore any of the proposed $300 million cut, regardless of the size of spring tax receipts, Fitzgerald today removed all doubt.

By way of background: Fitzgerald is the Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader. His office makes him one of the most important people shaping the state’s 2015-17 budget, alongside Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Governor Scott Walker, and the 16 members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. As JFC wraps up its work and we head into the late stages of the budget negotiations, there appears to be a minor conflict brewing between Assembly Republicans, who want to reduce (however slightly) the amount of Walker’s proposed cut to UW, and Senate Republicans, who don’t.

Yesterday brought the news that revenue from spring tax receipts (to be announced May 4) is unlikely to be as large as many had hoped. With the Republicans who control the Legislature in ideological lockstep against any tax increases, or any restoration of their many recent tax cuts, spring tax receipts represent the only politically possible source of new revenue that might be used to offset the cuts proposed by Walker throughout the budget.

There seems to be a consensus among those making the decisions that public K-12—faced with a proposed $127 million drop in funding as it stands—is first in line for any new money coming in. UW System leaders have been lobbying hard to get near the front of the line; at his March 25 appearance at UWM, System President Ray Cross reported proudly that UW was tied for first with K-12.

In the meantime, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank proposed, and the Board of Regents at its April meeting approved, major increases in tuition for out-of-state undergraduates and for graduate and professional students. With that as background, here is what Fitzgerald had to say today about where the UW System stands in the pecking order and to what extent the proposed $300 million cut might be reduced: “I think with the out-of-state and the graduate student tuition increases that the Regents implemented there probably seems to be even less of a commitment to backfill that.”

The phrase “even less of a commitment” carries what Jessica Rett, a semanticist at UCLA, calls an “evaluative” interpretation (treated in detail in her recent book). Ordinary unadorned uses of gradable adjectives (which linguists call positives) are evaluative: John is tall means that John exceeds some relevant standard of tallness. Simple comparatives are not evaluative: John is taller than Bill can be true even if neither John nor Bill is tall. Positive-antonym equatives are not evaluative (John is as tall as Bill; fine if neither is tall), but negative-antonym equatives are (John is as short as Bill; only true if they’re both short).

Fitzgerald’s phrase contains a comparative, which, under ordinary circumstances, is not evaluative. Had he simply said there probably seems to be less of a commitment, that would have been consistent with there being a relatively high level of commitment that has now come down a bit. But the inclusion of even gives away the game: modified by even, this comparative becomes unambiguously evaluative. When Fitzgerald said there seems to be even less of a commitment, he (perhaps unwittingly) revealed the fact that the commitment level was already low, and is now lower still. Whether or not he intended to do it in quite this way, Fitzgerald made it absolutely clear that he has no intention of restoring any funding to the UW System, indeed that he’s never had any intention of doing so.

What Blank and the Regents have provided is a remarkably convenient excuse. Madison is the only UW campus for which raising out-of-state and graduate/professional tuition represents anything like a viable path out of the current cuts. By going ahead with that plan now, before the budget has been passed, they have given lawmakers a gift-wrapped argument for implementing all of Walker’s proposed cuts, and have managed to throw the rest of the System under the bus in the process.

Things are, if possible, even worse than before.