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A UW System crisis a decade in the making

The system’s COVID-19 response would exploit the pandemic to help Republicans dismantle higher education in Wisconsin. 

Chekhov wrote: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” For the University of Wisconsin System, the various weapons that its leaders and Republican politicians have carefully accumulated over the last decade are now primed for use, posing an existential risk to a system that took generations to build. 

The combination of Scott Walker’s governorship, a gerrymandered Republican legislature, a Board of Regents that was wholly unrepresentative of the state, and a System President who seemed to view himself as representing these parties rather than the interests of the System itself set the stage. The weapons included the forced elimination of a rainy-day reserve fund, budget cuts, weakened tenure protections, and erosion of faculty governance for the most meaningful decisions. 

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The result is that the UW System is in a far worse position to face the COVID-19 storm than it was a decade ago, with policymakers who have the tools to turn the UW System into a shadow of itself. 

A Republican wishlist for higher education

On May 7, UW System President Ray Cross introduced a Blueprint for the University of Wisconsin System Beyond COVID-19. You could be forgiven for concluding, from the document’s title, that it has something to do with responding to the immediate financial crisis produced by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the operative word is “beyond”: Cross’s blueprint is not so much a plan for reacting to the crisis as a statement of things he’d like to do after it’s all over.

The blueprint presents an administrative downsizing wishlist dressed up as a set of existential imperatives. First and most prominently, Cross asserts that the UW System “must refine the missions of its comprehensive universities to provide greater institutional distinctiveness and identity.” The comprehensive universities are the four-year regional UW campuses: 11 in all, comprising everything but UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee. Cross’s plan is to force these campuses to compete against each other for the right to house various programs. “Greater institutional distinctiveness and identity” will be achieved via subtraction: will your campus be the one without sociology or the one without history?

For the unfortunate student in Superior or Whitewater or Stevens Point who will have to look beyond their local campus for courses, Cross’s blueprint proposes a “unified strategic online education delivery model.” Cross laments the UW System’s failure to capture a healthy share of the online education market (an area he has personally presided over for years, first as chancellor of the UW Colleges and Extension and, since 2014, as System President). In its details, however, the proposal looks like an attempt by UW System to win online market share from its own campuses, as it tried to do when merging the UW Colleges into the four-year campuses a few years ago.

The blueprint is also not terribly new. Cross’s emphasis on reducing duplication of programs across the system and shunting the affected students online echoes, almost word-for-word, the wishes of Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Regent Michael Grebe. Republican leaders in Wisconsin, including many UW System Regents, have long expressed a desire to downsize the system. Having stripped tenure protections out of state law and enabled the firing of faculty via program modification in 2015, they are treating the pandemic as an opportunity to use their new tools.

To see that Cross’s blueprint is more opportunistic ideological project than earnest crisis response, consider its likely effects. Campuses are facing tens of millions of dollars in immediate, near-term losses due to COVID. There are real questions about financial viability as soon as this fall. Cross’s plan, meanwhile, would achieve modest cost savings via consolidation starting in about 18 months on the most aggressive timeline. This is not crisis response; this is crisis exploitation.

Cross’s blueprint is very similar to the UW Colleges merger of 2017–18. Campus constituencies first learned about the plan through the media. It was sold on a vague claim of cost savings, and sped to Regent approval despite its bewildering scope and near-total lack of detail. Faculty, students, staff, and the public had zero real say on the outcome. In the end, the only identifiable savings came from eliminating the position of the chancellor. The funds from that salary line were promptly redistributed among the other chancellors.

We already have a preview of what happens next. The blueprint strongly resembles the Point Forward plan proposed by the UW-Stevens Point administration in 2018. Sweeping program cuts were presented as necessary to preserve the institution and enable a pivot to a new mission and identity for the campus. The new Regent policy on terminating tenured faculty was invoked for the first time. The plan provoked local opposition and national derision. Over the course of the ensuing year, it was tweaked and, finally, quietly withdrawn. Faculty attrition, and the associated budget savings, allowed the administration to drop the pretense that the “new vision” had been about anything but cutting costs.

Degraded leadership, and an uncertain future

All of this is to say: we’ve seen this movie before. The blueprint is just Ray Cross’s latest attempt to dress up ideologically driven budget cuts as something visionary. It’s also his last. The Regents are set to name Cross’s successor in the coming weeks. If the blueprint is a list of things that Cross would like to do after the COVID crisis has passed, it’s also an agenda that he won’t be around to implement. And Regent support may be short-lived: Walker appointees will lose control of the board in May 2021. 

Nonetheless, the closed nature of the System president selection process does not inspire confidence. In an unprecedented and alarming move, the current search excludes faculty and staff from the process. Alongside recent changes to the chancellor search process, the goal is  to enable people who look like the Regents—corporate executives—to take over the System and its various parts with a minimum of stakeholder input and unprecedented powers.

What the UW System needs now is the same thing that the entire higher ed sector and much of the rest of the economy needs: emergency federal relief until some semblance of normalcy returns. Ironically enough, this is where Cross’s strategy of working hand-in-hand with Republican leaders should have paid off. What was the point of building up that capital if not to use it during an emergency? Imagine Regent President Drew Petersen calling Ron Johnson, urging stronger federal intervention than provided by the CARES Act. 

Instead the UW System gets the sucker’s payoff. At its moment of greatest need it will see inadequate federal support and major state funding cuts. How it responds should reflect real consultation with the stakeholders who work in this system, not the plan that the political right has been pushing for years.

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