We Now Know, or, Another Semester Older, Deeper in Debt: Takeaways from the UW Struggle, 2015

all of us

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

-Frederick Douglass, 1857

Since this summer, the entire University of Wisconsin system has faced the assault on academic freedom and shared governance enacted by Act 55. In addition, we have been hit with a whopping, historic $250 million cut in state allotments to the UW system.

As if these affronts were not daunting enough, in late summer UW-Milwaukee administrators announced that the campus had amassed an internal “structural deficit” amounting to an additional $30 million in cuts. An extra-governmental, campus-wide task force, as well as secretive budget-cutting committees, convened to contend with the implications of this “structural deficit.”

UWM AAUP has been active on both the state-wide and campus-specific fronts. At UWM we successfully advocated for AAUP representation on the Chancellor’s Campus Organization and Efficiency Task Force (CCOET). Chapter members and allies turned out in force for many of its meetings. Our “One Faculty” cohort at these meetings included graduate and undergraduate students, academic staff and faculty. Together, we gave voices and faces to the effects of potential cuts, thereby altering the task force’s conversation.

In concert with colleagues at Madison and Whitewater, we also pressed for AAUP-compliant policy at the statewide Tenure Task Force (TTF) charged with rewriting academic policy for the state. This task force is consultative, not democratic: these policies will ultimately be decided by the Board of Regents alone. At the TTF meeting on December 23, Regent John Behling, Chair, repeatedly responded to concerns about draft faculty layoff and post-tenure review policies by saying that he would “think about it.” His use of the first person singular reveals volumes about the autocratic way system policies are now being crafted. However, our collective advocacy so far has resulted in the adoption of much more AAUP-compliant language, which will hopefully have an impact on the final outcome of UW system tenure policies.

Advocating for equity in a time of austerity has come with a steep learning curve, requiring attention to the machinations of governance and administration, budgeting practices and state politics. We have done what university intellectuals do best: we have analyzed, discussed and written about what is happening to us. On top of that, we have organized and turned out for events and meetings to show our solidarity and support for each other, creating networks on and across our campuses.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway because this is that kind of end-of-year summary, that all of us undertake this work on top of full schedules of teaching, research, service and personal commitments. Big thanks and much respect to everyone for the hard work, for faith in a difficult time.

In the much-needed pause of the all-too-brief holiday break in this madness (CCOET small groups are meeting this week! Possibly Regent Behling is spending time mulling the many suggestions he received from dauntless TTF members before Xmas!), I thought it useful to look back on what we learned from our collective efforts in 2015. So here are some greatest hits of 2015: a holiday gift from me, as President of our thriving UWM AAUP Chapter. May they help advance our struggle in 2016!

1. The fiscal austerity imposed by state legislative policy is real. It also occasions the aggregation of power.
Policies enacted in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility” work against democracy, putting more power into fewer hands. We can see this taking place across the system, as the Regents rewrite university policies once vested in administration and shared governance. It is happening at UWM, where CCOET, an extra-governmental task force, proposes policies like “position control,” which promise “transparency” and “flexibility” by centrally consolidating the power to hire.

The kicker here is that the budget crisis will pass, as all crises do. But much of the restructuring of the university is likely to linger, particularly if the democratic tradition of shared governance struck down by Act 55 continues to wane.

2. “Flexibility” in administrative policy always comes at the expense of those with the least power and resources.
So far, at UWM, most of the savings necessary to contend with the budget cuts have come from voluntary retirements and resignations: positions that have not been replaced. While this method lacks vision, meaning that the units experiencing a high volume of people leaving or retiring take the greatest hits with no particular oversight, it so far has had the virtue of not cutting positions out from under people.

Voluntary departures will not be enough, particularly to contend with UWM’s “structural deficit.” Further savings will likely come largely at the expense of the lowest paid and most contingent employees at the university. Already there are rumors of massive layoffs of teaching academic staff. And we can see the ghost of this Christmas future in Chancellor Mone’s blithe December 22 announcement of the campus’ Priority Referral Policy for University staff laid off or not renewed.

3. There will be no “chopping from the top,” no voluntary cuts to the salaries of highly paid administrators.

Along with allies like the UWM chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, UWM AAUP has repeatedly raised the symbolic and fiscal importance of cutting the largest salaries on campus and across the UW system. These interventions have elicited muted murmurs of assent and vague references to a possible “administrative furlough.” But no plan has been forthcoming to implement any “chopping from the top.” Why would anyone who makes six figures give themselves a pay cut to inspire those making five? Frederick Douglass understood this one well.

4. The “structural deficit” comes out of decades of inequitable funding of UWM by the UW system.
The administrator who first explained the “structural deficit” to me back in August likened the campus’ situation to that of a consumer who foolishly overspent on a credit card, with the resulting necessity of austerity. This explanation makes UWM’s growth prior to 2010 seem irresponsible. As in the case of consumer overspending, the narrative of the “structural deficit” is one of grave and shameful fiscal miscalculation.

But this explanation omits the fact that the “structural deficit” directly reflects the long-term underfunding of UWM. As UWM-AAUP explained in our December 7 press release, state appropriations for UWM have declined to below half of what UW-Madison receives per student. Since UWM educates the largest percentage of students of color, veterans and residents of Wisconsin in the UW system, that effectively means that these students pay more in tuition and fees than students on other campuses, and receive less. Even a small increase in state appropriations per student would immediately relieve the “structural deficit.”

This alternative story about the source of our “structural deficit” is instructive, because it frames the current budget crisis in a historical context. The rhetoric of exigency that accompanies this crisis often discourages such broader analysis. Our work to understand the “structural deficit” has been collaborative, involving AAUP members across the state and campus.

5. What is happening to public higher education is happening across the board to public education.
The assault on the UW System has happened at the same time as state legislators introduced a bill to further privatize Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). This attempt to take over MPS would increase the number of voucher and privately run K-12 schools in the district. Touted as an “efficient” remedy to aid underfunded urban public schools, the takeover would make MPS responsive to the concerns of shareholders in private corporations rather than parents, students and other residents of the city.

UWM-AAUP has been proud to collaborate with the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) in supporting democratic access and control of education for all. In the UW system, we educate the students who graduate from high schools across the state. For this reason and many others, the struggle for public education in the universities is deeply connected to the issues confronting public K-12 education in our state. Together, we work to defend the public good articulated in the Wisconsin Idea.

Which brings me to:

6. We are better off together.
These are discouraging and terrifying times to work in the UW system. Across rank and status, job security is questionable. Morale is low. We see colleagues leaving and applying for jobs elsewhere, and we wonder what the point is of sticking around.

But here’s the thing: what’s happening in the UW system is awful. It’s also happening across the country and across the globe. The savaging of UW is part of a generalized abandonment of public institutions that favors profit-driven education over the democratic civility articulated in the Wisconsin Idea.

True that we are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, but the poison gas of corrupt fiscal policy is pervasive in both private and public education today. It makes sense, then, to stand our ground here.

Before I started working for UWM-AAUP our situation made me scared and angry on a daily basis. This has changed since our chapter formed in August. Sure, in good part I have been too busy to worry. But it’s also that I am inspired, on a daily basis, by how brilliant, committed and principled our colleagues across the campus and the system are.

And together, we are making a difference. We may not win every battle in the long struggle we have undertaken, but our presence changes the story, changes the possibilities.

If you haven’t already, join us in 2016! We need all of us to truly be: One Faculty!