Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

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UW leadership’s dangerous tuition game

The UW System’s most powerful administrators—including at least the system president, the chancellors at Madison and Milwaukee, and several members of the Board of Regents—have publicly expressed their support for Scott Walker’s proposal to convert the system from a state agency to a public authority. This conversion would free the UW from various state-imposed restrictions and generally give the Board of Regents far greater autonomy to run things as it sees fit, free from legislative oversight. But now the specter of sharp tuition increases after 2017 has thrown a wrench into the works. UW leadership, having spent the last two weeks championing the public authority model, finds itself poorly positioned on the issue of tuition, and this in turn threatens to become a political albatross for the entire UW System.

The basic dynamics of the situation are very simple. There is a longstanding downward trend in state funding to the UW System, and Walker’s budget would permanently reduce it by a further $150 million per year, or about 13% of the current funding level (itself the result of many recent decreases; meanwhile, CPI-indexed increases would start only in 2018). The “flexibilities” afforded by conversion to a public authority are touted by Walker as sufficient to offset the cuts, but it is now (finally!) generally acknowledged that the $150-million-per-year figure is an utter fabrication, a politician’s demand rather than an accountant’s finding. What can close the gap between Walker’s massive cut and the relatively limited savings that can be achieved by the proposed administrative conversion? Only two things: shuttering units or raising tuition.

Walker’s budget proposal is calculated to ensure that the first option is taken in the near term, as it freezes in-state undergraduate tuition during the 2015-17 biennium (continuing a freeze that has been in force since 2013). What particular form this will take is anybody’s guess: furloughs, large-scale staff consolidation and layoffs, closing down of programs, departments, campuses? The possibilities are being actively debated by administrators across the system as we speak. The result will depend in large part on the final size of the cut, which in turn depends on the outcome of negotiations in the legislature that will take place over the next several months, all the time drawing nearer to July 1, when the new budget must be implemented.

The obvious question is what will happen come 2017. Under the current proposal, at that point the tuition freeze will have expired and the UW will be a public authority controlled by a Board of Regents largely free of legislative oversight. How will UW leadership exercise its newfound ability to breathe after two years of being strangled by Walker and the legislature? Can you guess?

The reality of huge state funding cuts is that they ultimately need to be offset by corresponding increases in tuition. Walker has managed to mask this reality so far through various sorts of disingenuity—his radical overstatement of the money that can be saved by converting to a public authority, his suggestion that a short-term unfunded tuition freeze will make everything okay (when in fact it will compound the problem)—but it is gradually dawning on people just how this book will need to get balanced.

Which brings us back to UW leadership: as champions of the public authority conversion, they also own its consequences. And while they have been very vocal that Walker’s proposed cuts are too large, they have also become de facto advocates of the only mathematically available solution to the cuts: major increases in tuition starting in 2017. Thus UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said on Friday, in response to the news that Walker and other Republicans are considering a CPI-pegged cap on future tuition increases, that such a cap would “actively harm” the university. UW leadership is caught with its political pants down: having made a deal with the devil to get out from under the control of a hostile legislature, they now see the deal being altered and their impure intentions exposed. Walker has abandoned all pretense of the public authority being a solution to anything: it is an expedient for justifying the cuts, nothing more (though it does the carry the side benefit of eroding statutory protections for faculty). The inexorable tuition explosion that will result is proving to be politically untenable, and Walker has moved immediately to head it off, consequences be damned. And UW leadership, having adopted a posture of supporting the public authority on principled grounds, is left in the politically deadly position of having to fight for the power to raise tuition arbitrarily.

Perhaps the best hope for all of us at this point is that the math and the politics of the public authority conversion become messy enough that the whole thing is tabled for another budget cycle. The initial reaction to Walker’s budget has been by and large a pro-UW one. Let’s hope that UW leadership’s ill-considered advocacy of the public authority model doesn’t undo the goodwill generated so far.

About those tools…

How will the UW System absorb Scott Walker’s permanent $150-million-per-year cut in state funding? The suggestion from the outset has been that the “flexibilities” afforded by converting the UW from a state agency to a public authority will make up for the lost state funding. Unencumbered by state procurement rules and other restrictions, the UW Public Authority will have the Act 10-style “tools” it needs to make up for the losses. Never mind that the Walker administration has not produced any study or analysis showing that the $150-million-per-year figure is a realistic one; the logic of the cuts-for-tools deal between Walker and UW System President Ray Cross can at least be stated with a straight face, provided you don’t look too hard at the actual numbers.

But this week has brought a flurry of changes and updates, as people have begun to take a closer look at the tools. At his public forum on Tuesday morning, UWM Chancellor Mark Mone noted that Walker’s proposed budget has the cuts beginning on July 1, 2015, while the UW Public Authority comes into existence exactly one year later, on July 1, 2016. In other words, the amount of money that would be saved in the 2015-16 fiscal year by conversion to a public authority would be exactly $0. So much for offsetting the first year’s $150 million cut. Your tools are on back-order…for a year.

By Wednesday, Walker’s spokespeople were hedging furiously, asserting that the UW System needn’t absorb the $300 million in cuts evenly over the two years of the 2015-17 biennium and proposing that the public authority could be created sooner. Your tools are actually in stock, they’re just in our warehouse across town.

Then, today, Walker suggested that he is open to the possibility of capping tuition increases at the rate of inflation starting in 2017, when his currently proposed tuition freeze is set to expire. On second thought, we’ll be keeping your tools in our garage. (We’re still smashing your car, though.)

The takeaway from the week’s rapidly changing budget landscape is that the tools part of the cuts-for-tools deal is very much subject to revision. The cuts, not so much, at least not publicly so far. There is plenty of speculation that the size of the cuts might be reduced through negotiations in the legislature. But to date, Scott Walker seems open to changing literally any part of the deal except the massive cuts themselves. This, of course, totally demolishes Walker’s already half-hearted conceit that he cares about offsetting the cuts. On Monday, the cuts-for-tools deal might have seemed on the level, if dubious in motivation and mathematically challenged. By Thursday, Walker revealed it to be an utter charade.

As if any more evidence of the Walker administration’s bad faith were necessary, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch told reporters on Wednesday that, in the event that spring tax receipts are higher than currently projected, the extra money should go toward…new tax cuts. Even Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Mr. Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever himself, wouldn’t go so far, saying that the legislature’s priorities would be softening the cuts to UW and K-12 education.

As we learn more about the public authority model, it becomes less and less clear why anyone who works or studies at the UW would be in favor of it. Rather than step back and study what this massive change would entail and what savings it might plausibly bring, Walker is instead proposing to rush even faster into the unknown. And for Cross and the various UW chancellors who have come out in favor of the public authority, Walker’s proposed tuition-increase cap is surely a bitter pill. As Lenora Hanson and Elsa Noterman of UW-Madison wrote this week, the debt-issuing power of public authorities—one of the key flexibilities afforded under the model—is often backed by future tuition as collateral. But Walker and the legislature may find it impossible to relinquish control of such a politically sensitive power, leaving the future UW Public Authority’s bonding power seriously hamstrung.

This deal is getting worse all the time.

The Wisconsin Idea: Show me the money!

Scott Walker’s now-scuttled proposal to scrap the Wisconsin Idea—the search for truth, the duty to extend the benefits of the university beyond the borders of campus, etc.—has generated national media attention. The small-minded, mean-spirited nature of the language change caused far more widespread offense than Walker seems to have anticipated, and his clumsy backpedaling over the proposal and its withdrawal—the initial claim that it was a “drafting error” was quickly revealed to be a lie—drew immediate scrutiny from a national press trying to assess the personal character and political acumen of Walker, an increasingly prominent Republican presidential hopeful.

So it is with no small amount of exasperation that we in Wisconsin now see some national media commentators expressing relief that Walker has “backed down” from his unthinkable proposal. To be sure, removing the Wisconsin Idea from state law was a symbolic affront to human decency and dignity, and at the level of symbolism, things have now been put back in their proper place. Walker’s budget proposal, however, couples that symbolic blow with a very real, material one: a $300 million cut to the UW System over the coming two years, the start of a permanent 13% reduction in state funding. This unprecedentedly massive cut, which will do far more real-world damage to Wisconsin universities and their students than any mission statement rewording ever could, is still very much on the table.

We find ourselves at a place of symbolism without substance. You cannot support the ideals embodied in the Wisconsin Idea while simultaneously imposing the largest budget cut in the university’s history. The great successes of the UW System, its value to the state, the incalculable inheritance it represents, are all the result of the far-sighted material investment the state has made over the course of decades. You want to keep the Wisconsin Idea while slashing that investment? I call bullshit.

The Wisconsin Idea doesn’t come for free.

Indeed, almost everyone in Wisconsin outside of Walker’s inner circle seems to understand the calamity that will ensue if his proposed UW budget becomes law. Walker insists that his proposal to convert the UW System from a state agency to a public authority will generate savings sufficient to offset the cut (never mind the simultaneous unfunded tuition freeze). But this is a massive administrative change, one that will take years to carry through. Any savings will emerge only slowly, over the course of years, but the permanent 13% cut is to begin immediately, on July 1.

There is also a notable absence of evidence or analysis to support Walker’s specific savings claims. Walker says he wants to limit the scope of discussion to “debate about what is the real amount of savings that can be generated by an authority, which we believe is worth $150 million a year.” Everyone in Wisconsin should be asking: Why do you believe this? Where does this number come from? If the Walker administration has produced a report or analysis detailing how they arrived at the $150-million-a-year figure, they certainly haven’t shared it with the public. On the contrary, Walker seems to have plucked this eye-poppingly large number out of thin air in order to impress the small national circle of blue-chip Republican presidential donors.

People in Wisconsin are quickly realizing that Walker is governing with both eyes on next year’s presidential race. Wisconsin Republicans who are politically able to question Walker—those who don’t covet a spot in a potential Walker administration or have any national political aspirations of their own—have begun to speak out against the UW cuts. Like them, we need to keep the focus here in Wisconsin. We need to keep the focus on the students and families who will be left with huge tuition increases to attend diminished universities come 2017. Those of us who care more about Wisconsin and its public inheritance than about securing a patron for 2016 need to speak out, now.

The Wisconsin Idea media cycle has already run its course. The symbolic victory of preserving the UW mission statement will be hollow indeed if it is not followed by a successful movement to combat the very real threat to the UW System and its students that remains.

If Scott Walker truly believes in the Wisconsin Idea, it’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is.


“Banana, buck”: Walker’s tuition time bomb

In his press releases of the past few days, Scott Walker has been at pains to emphasize that his 2015-17 proposals for the UW System include freezing in-state undergraduate tuition. Walker has found himself in damage control mode, both over his overweening (and hastily withdrawn) proposal to strike the Wisconsin Idea from state law, and over his proposal to cut $300 million in state funding from the UW System. Walker is well aware of the political sensitivity of UW tuition. Here is what he had to say yesterday:

“In the 2003/05 state budget, former Governor Jim Doyle cut the UW by $250 million. He did not give them reforms to make up for the lost state aid. They made up most of it with higher tuition. Our proposal gives new cost-saving reforms to the UW through an authority—while freezing tuition.”

A tuition freeze without additional state funding to offset it is a classic example of an unfunded mandate. State government is telling the UW System that it cannot exercise one of its standard options for coping with increased operating costs (electricity, health care, promotions, etc.), but is providing no money to compensate for the prohibition. Walker’s suggestion is that the “new cost-saving reforms” in his budget—namely, the conversion of the UW System from a state agency overseen by elected representatives into a public authority overseen by gubernatorial appointees—can compensate for the tuition freeze. In other words, the “tools” that the UW gains through structural reform can, in effect, fund the mandated tuition freeze. Whether the reforms can fully offset a tuition freeze is debatable, but at least it’s a coherent position.

What is not coherent, or even remotely defensible, is Walker’s suggestion that the conversion to a public authority can simultaneously make up for the additional $300 million cut he is proposing over the coming two years, the start of a permanent 13% reduction in state funding to UW. Walker is putting the UW System in a double bind: cuts on one side, tuition freeze on the other. The effect of this, if it becomes law, will be to strangle the UW System for the next two years. The public authority reforms will not come anywhere close to making up for the loss of $150 million per year in perpetuity, let alone that amount *plus* a tuition freeze. Come 2017, when the freeze expires and the legislature no longer controls the UW, students would be paying greatly increased tuition to attend the diminished universities that emerge on the other side of this biennium from hell.


Walker, of course, never comes right out and admits that his reforms are meant to do this double duty. Indeed, he invokes the tuition freeze in the hope of reassuring students and parents that the cuts won’t be that bad. But let’s be real: imposing a massive budget cut and then suggesting that its ill effects can be offset with a tuition freeze is the university budgeting equivalent of stealing from the cash drawer and trying to cover it up by throwing away your inventory. This is the height of bad faith. Any manager or executive who proposed such a thing in earnest would be fired on the spot.

Wisconsin students and parents shouldn’t be fooled. Walker’s proposal for UW is a tuition time bomb set for 2017.

Tuition zero

This week Scott Walker unveils a budget proposal for the 2015-17 biennium that seeks to cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System, or about 13% of total current state support, the biggest cut in the system’s history. Walker is simultaneously proposing to alter state law governing the UW System in such a way that certain unspecified financial efficiencies can be achieved. No one pretends that these efficiencies will be nearly enough to offset the $300 million cut. Under ordinary circumstances, the UW System would be forced to raise tuition in order to cover the gap between the amount of the cuts and what can be saved through the new organizational structure. But Walker is also proposing a two-year extension of the system-wide tuition freeze that has been in force since 2013. Something will have to give.

To hear Walker tell it, he is concerned with educational quality and affordable access to a UW education. In his newsletter of this past Friday, Walker writes, “As a parent of a son in the UW System, I understand the importance of maintaining the quality of higher education and keeping college affordable for the parents and students of our state.” It is certainly hard to argue with the proposition that a UW education should be made as high-quality and affordable as possible.

The problem, of course, is that quality and affordability both cost money, and Walker’s immediate proposal is not to dedicate more money to those goals, but instead to cut an unprecedentedly large amount of money out of the UW System budget. This is plainly the opposite of what you would do if you cared about quality and affordability; it is hard to see how anyone can take Walker seriously on this point.

Indeed, in that same newsletter, Walker reveals an almost shocking lack of concern for college affordability after 2017: “At the end of this time [i.e. 2015-17], the UW System Authority institutions will have the ability to adjust tuition based on demand to be more competitive and market-based.” This is a clear admission from Walker that the tuition freeze is untenable when paired with the massive budget cuts he is proposing, and that 2017 will bring an end to the fantasy: tuition will rise dramatically, or quality will suffer terribly, or (most likely) we will see some combination of those two outcomes. By the time the bill comes due, of course, Walker plans to be long gone from Wisconsin, and his son will be at or near the end of his time in the UW System, to boot. So much for sympathy with fellow UW parents.

The issue of affordability is the one on which UW faculty, administrators, and other supporters have been the most puzzlingly silent. Why has tuition gone up at UW campuses in recent years? Too often, it is portrayed as the result of greed on the part of the UW System and, by extension, UW faculty.* This is the impression we get when, for example, the Journal-Sentinel writes that “the Legislature would have no ability to stop the university from raising tuition as much as it wants starting in 2017.”

In reality, the UW System raises tuition not because it wants to but because the legislature leaves it no choice. Tuition increases directly track funding cuts at the state level: the money has to come from somewhere, and in recent years legislators (both Republican and Democratic) have seen fit to shift the costs from the state as a whole to individual students. This is an “every road a toll road” approach to higher ed. If transportation funding worked like this, you would end up paying a toll to drive down the street you live on: after all, I don’t live on your street, so why should my tax dollars fund its upkeep?

So, I am here to tell you: UW faculty want to see tuition go down! UW faculty would like nothing better than to see the legislature increase funding to the System and devote the entire increase to a tuition drop (we are idealistic like that). Scott Walker is a self-proclaimed fan of “big and bold” political ideas, so here is one: let’s set UW System tuition on a downward path to zero. This would make a UW education more accessible and more attractive to students, who in turn would graduate without the mountains of debt that recent state funding cuts have forced them to take on.

Implementing this vision will take bold political leadership: tuition currently makes up about 22% of the UW System budget, which is more than the 19% that comes from state funding. It will take a renewed commitment to the notion of the public sphere and our shared responsibility for one another. I won’t hold my breath waiting for Scott Walker to take those steps. But don’t be fooled: the commitment to a high-quality and affordable UW education demands changes in precisely the opposite direction from the ones Walker is proposing.

*(In the interest of disclosure: as a full-time professor at UW-Milwaukee, the second-ranked research campus in Wisconsin, I now earn less than I made four years ago in a comparable position at Wayne State University in Detroit, a third-tier public institution within the Michigan university system.)

Not all bare plurals

“Not all men” has now become the kind of internet phenomenon that generates exegetical click-bait at news sites for the unhip cognoscenti. The underlying truth-conditional quibble is something that has been known in the natural-language semantics literature for decades: the generic force that often attends the use of English bare plural noun phrases is not semantically equivalent to universal quantification. “Lions have manes” (not *all* lions!); “Humans give live birth” (not *all* humans!); etc. Men who object to generic assertions on the basis of their non-universality are seriously missing the point (not *all*—er, yes, all of them).

For more, check out this concise overview of generics by Jeff Pelletier, or go and read Greg Carlson’s dissertation, or get yourself a copy of The Generic Book.

Marginal tax rates redux

Today brings a reminder of the dangers of talking about income tax rates as if they applied to people rather than to portions of income (a subject we’ve covered before). Here is Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defending a proposal to cut rates in all five of Wisconsin’s income tax brackets, rather than only in the lowest three brackets:

The tax cuts for high earners are a concern for some Senate Republicans, Fitzgerald said. But Vos said he had no problem with them.

“I think everybody who pays income taxes deserves a tax cut,” he said.

Of course, cutting rates in the lowest three brackets does provide a tax cut for everyone who pays income taxes: high earners enjoy the same rate cut on the portions of their income that fall in the affected brackets. Vos’s statement—variations of which have become a core conservative talking point on tax policy—is carefully crafted to imply (but not entail) that this isn’t the case, and that high earners will be left out unless the top two brackets also see rate cuts. This move is facilitated by talking about tax rates as if they applied directly to people: by this fuzzy logic, no rate cut for the top two brackets means no rate cut for people in the top two brackets, and we are on the slippery slope to “class warfare”.

This kind of misleading talk about taxes is so ingrained that journalists apparently never think to challenge it. Vos’s statement closes a section in the AP article quoted above. Even the self-styled truth-tellers at Politifact indirectly quote, without comment, Wisconsin State Rep. Dale Kooyenga making the same disingenuous point in an investigation of his claims about the state’s tax code.

Politicians of both parties frequently claim to want to “fix” the tax code. A good first step would be to fix the way we talk about it.

Framing the NRA

A suggestion for how to talk about the NRA’s current leadership, in light of the organization’s cynical and unrepentantly gundamentalist press conference this morning: as a failed partner for peace.

The term partner for peace highlights the NRA’s standing as an organization apart from the public and from the government bodies that might enact meaningful gun reform: you don’t need a partnership with those who are already in your group. It frames the failed partner as untrustworthy but possibly improvable, as needing to undergo a significant internal change in order to become a reliable partner; failure to change can then be taken as a sign of bad faith, hostility, or unsalvageable corruption. It is no accident that governments use phrases like this as euphemistic terms of abuse for those they deem to be terrorists but whom they must work with politically. Finally, partner for peace places the focus on peace, which connotes an absence of weaponry, rather than on safety or security, which are intimately tied to the rhetoric of unfettered gun ownership.

It is clear today that the NRA, under its current leadership, is unwilling to be a partner for peace. It’s time for those who seek meaningful gun reform to say as much.

Gun reform

In the wake of Sandy Hook, much has been written about the vexed linguistic opposition between gun rights and gun control in which our national discussion about guns is predominantly framed. The phrase gun rights, which has (apparently) become increasingly common in the past few decades, brilliantly preempts criticism of gundamentalism, framing any firearms restrictions whatsoever as an affront to liberty. Gun control, meanwhile, is rife with negative connotations and is especially self-undermining in light of the rhetorical ascendancy of gun rights: rights are things to be defended, not controlled. That the matter is almost universally framed in the media as one of gun rights vs. gun control is, as usual, a gross oversimplification, and a deeply misleading one in its implication that one cannot simultaneously support both gun rights and gun control. More to the point, this framing is a losing proposition for those who seek meaningful restrictions on gun ownership in America (restrictions that the Supreme Court’s Heller majority explicitly leaves room for in its original, if not originalist, interpretation of the Second Amendment).

So, a suggestion: let’s talk about gun reform. Reform has none of the bad connotations of control: on the contrary, reform is what Serious People nowadays propose in response to all sorts of pressing and difficult problems (see: school reform, entitlement reform, etc.). Unlike with control, the understood object of reform is not guns themselves, but the way in which our society deals with them. Reform frames its outcome not merely as a change from what came before, but as an undeniable improvement. Gun reform thus not only avoids taking the bait of gun rights, but redirects attention away from the false dichotomy of gun rights vs. gun control.

At present, however, gun reform is all but absent from the national discussion. Google searches today return 5,060,000 hits for “gun rights”, 13,800,000 for “gun control”, and just 286,000 for “gun reform”. There is thus a clear opening for those who support restrictions on gun ownership to claim the phrase gun reform as their own, and thereby to disentangle themselves from the unfavorable linguistic framing of the current debate.