Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

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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.


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.

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UW tuition: going the wrong way

What is behind the recent upward surge in the cost of tuition at public universities? This question has seen some lively debate in recent weeks, spurred in part by the publication of a New York Times op-ed by Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado. Campos takes aim at the conventional wisdom that tuition increases are largely due to declines in state funding. He argues instead that tuition increases are the result of the disproportionate growth of university administrations, which, as others have noted, has gone hand in hand with a trend towards privatization and financialization of public university operations (debt-funded building and expansion projects, university involvement in quasi-private ventures of various kinds, to say nothing of the immoderate upswings in the salaries of the ever more numerous administrators themselves).*

Chris Newfield has a very thorough take-down of Campos on his blog: in short, Campos is right that administrative bloat is a problem, but his argument about state funding is just absurdly wrong. I don’t have the expertise to add much to what Newfield says. The declines in state funding are real. Real, too, are the explosive growth of the administrative class and the supreme fungibility (and, thus, desirability) of tuition dollars vs. other forms of university revenue. On the one hand, tuition goes up when state funding drops; on the other, it is advantageous for anyone in a position of administrative power to maximize the proportion of the money at their disposal that comes from tuition.

The obvious corollary is that, in order to stem the tide of tuition increases, we should seek to stabilize or increase state funding and curb the power of administrators. Notably, Scott Walker’s proposed funding and administrative changes to the UW System do the opposite on both scores.

Walker recognized the political sensitivity of UW tuition early on in the budget process, and this week he repeated his call for tuition increases after 2017 to be capped at the level of the consumer price index. This would actually be a laudable proposal if it weren’t so utterly cynical. It has been clear all along that, as far as the budget process is concerned, Walker sees the UW System as an ATM from which he is making a hefty withdrawal. Everything else is pure political expediency: converting the system to a public authority will pay for the cuts (quickly revealed to be a complete fiction), tuition will be “market-based” after 2017 so UW can be flexible and nimble (hastily withdrawn in the face of fears over major tuition hikes), the 2015-17 tuition freeze means the cuts won’t be so bad for students (it will only make the problems of course availability, time to degree, and, eventually, tuition, much worse), and on and on. Keep talking, and you may just get away with the cash.

While Walker hasn’t budged on the $300 million figure and this week reiterated his support for the proposed public authority conversion—i.e., he doubled down on the two proposals that are all but guaranteed to force big tuition increases within a few years—there have been signals that many on the Joint Finance Committee of the Legislature would like to reduce the size of the cut (which is opposed by 70% of Wisconsin registered voters, according to the latest Marquette Law poll), and JFC co-chair John Nygren this week repeated his strong opposition to the public authority.

While this is a slight improvement over what Walker is proposing, it’s hardly a victory for anyone concerned about tuition, and not just because of the numbers. There is a problem of principle, too: when Assembly Republicans began distancing themselves from the public authority proposal in the wake of the March Board of Regents meeting, their stated rationale was that the Regents were “not ready” for the proposed autonomy because they were unwilling to gut tenure and shared governance. When he appeared on the Joy Cardin Show last month, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos suggested that shared governance takes up too much of the faculty’s time, and worried that campuses might be wasting money by doling out course releases for service on the faculty senate (which, for the record, is not actually a thing that happens).

Whatever one might make of the social and cultural factors behind this animus towards faculty, the drive to eliminate tenure and shared governance flies in the face of these legislators’ stated desire to hold tuition in check. Faculty, as Chuck Rybak helpfully reminds us, do not actually get to set tuition rates. Faculty salaries have, per Newfield, stagnated in real terms since 1970. The independence and academic freedom that faculty enjoy under the system of tenure and shared governance are too often mistaken for concentrated institutional power. The Republican push to strip away that independence, if successful, will do nothing to hold down tuition. On the contrary, it will consolidate even more power in the hands of administrators, putting it precisely where it can most readily be converted into outsize increases in tuition.

And indeed, how did UW System President Ray Cross react to Walker’s renewed call for a CPI-pegged cap on tuition increases after 2017? He said, “Many legislators and stakeholders agree that this kind of price control is not compatible with the agile, market-driven and competitive entity the state needs us to be,” which is more or less the management-speak version of “Are you fucking kidding me?” Meanwhile, the Board of Regents at its meeting last week approved the first two years of a four-year plan by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to increase out-of-state and graduate/professional tuition dramatically.

For anyone who is actually concerned about UW tuition, in other words, the twin movements to slash state funding and eliminate faculty protections represent a triumph of political spite over economic logic. Shared governance may not have a clear analogue in the business world, but it is one of the few checks on administrative power within the university (as forcefully articulated by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Chad Alan Goldberg here), and thus one of the few internal forces that can be deployed against those most directly responsible for tuition increases that go beyond what is needed to offset state cuts. As for those cuts, they should obviously be eliminated and reversed. At the moment our Legislature, in thrall to Grover Norquist, is praying for rain in the form of spring tax receipts, but in the longer term we will need legislators with the stomach to raise revenue, or cancel scheduled tax cuts, or accept massive sums of no-strings-attached Federal money. We may also need a governor who is unwilling to sacrifice his state’s entire public education system on the altar of his perplexingly plausible presidential aspirations.

In an ideal world, the governor’s proposal to cap future tuition increases would be matched by a legislative commitment to fund the system accordingly, and a strong shared governance system that limits both the size and the power of administrative overhead. In reality, we are going in the opposite direction on both fronts. The consequences for tuition are as sadly easy to predict as they are politically difficult to prevent.

*(Anecdotally, here at UWM we have had some high-level administrators in recent years receive raises in excess of the starting salary of, say, an assistant professor of linguistics.)