UWM: Horror Show Edition


POST-ACT 55 WISCONSIN, THE FIRST DAY OF UWM SPRING BREAK: less than a week out from the March 10 adoption by the state Board of Regents of new, Act 55-complaint policy that threatens the much-vaunted Wisconsin Idea.

The new policy riddles the academic freedom and university democracy consecrated in the Wisconsin Idea with contradictions. In the name of “flexibility” for a “21st century economy,” powers long vested in shared governance have now been wrested away from faculty and staff and placed instead into the hands of campus and system administrators. University employees are nervous, fearing that the new language of “program discontinuance,” effectively ends tenure and spells the end of employment for many faculty and academic staff.

At UWM, we are also a week shy of the Chancellor’s next budget address to the campus, rescheduled from March 10 to March 28 because of the Board of Regents meeting. In this budget address, the Chancellor is going to announce his program for dealing with UWM’s “structural deficit”: the $50 million of additional cuts confronted by our campus. The Chancellor is to discuss which of the recommendations of his Campus Organization and Efficiency Task Force (CCOET) he plans to adopt. These include programs for reorganizing the campus to maximize “efficiencies” and cut expenses as well as “position control” in which all open jobs are remitted to central oversight. Best case scenario: pursuing these cost-saving measures will involve a natural shrinkage of faculty and staff through attrition. Worse and more likely, this will involve terminations and layoffs.

Across the UW system, employees are nervous. Administrators are now in possession of formidable powers to terminate employment; they are motivated by vast cuts in state funding to seek cost savings. Layoffs and firings seem inevitable. As UW-Madison’s Dave Vanness and Chad Alan Goldberg point out, such powers abhor a vacuum: they are almost always deployed.

Spring break: I vow not to think about all this for a little while. Oblivious as a horror movie character who opts to check the basement, I open my email Monday morning. I am stunned to find this message:

On behalf of the Chancellor’s office I am announcing the search for the Director of the Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship.

How on earth is this a good time to be advertising for a new administrative post?

The most benign read of this is that it is simply a matter of institutional tone-deafness and bad timing. Donations like the one supporting the Lubar Center are vital to the economic health of the UW system, although they can also cost money to staff and maintain. Perhaps the Lubar Foundation gift covers the entire salary of the proposed position. Maybe there is a justified hurry. A hurry would certainly explain the one-week application window in the ad.

Even if this benign interpretation is accurate, the timing of this advertisement exhibits a terrible ignorance of campus climate on the part of the university administration.  We inhabit a period of severe state-imposed austerity, in which hard-working and undercompensated faculty and staff struggle to keep the units that teach and support UWM students afloat, amidst constant rumors of the end of institutional life as we know it. For example: to save money, the tremendously successful Campus Read program has been downsized from a free book distributed to all first year students to a free PDF of an article. In this context, the announcement of an entirely new administrative position seems inconceivable.

This timing points towards a much more sinister reading of this announcement. Even if the sounds the character initially hears on venturing down the basement stairs turn out to be just a cat, we all know there is something else down there, something big and scary, less fluffy and much more dangerous.

In this horror-show plot, the austerity created by Wisconsin politicians, the policy adopted by the Board of Regents last week, and the announcement of this new position are connected in sinister ways. They aim to restructure education on a corporate model.

Calls to make the university more “flexible” and “efficient,” to bring it in line with markets, to, in the sardonic phrase of Regent Margaret Farrow “welcome” us into the “21st century” disregard the deep roots of the UW system in democratic access. (Not to mention the existence of a Center for 21st Century Studies on this very campus!) In emphasizing markets, this new corporate model disregards the particular mission of UWM: to provide broad, public access to a top-tier, Research 1, university to all the people of Wisconsin.

Modifying UW to suit a corporate model undermines the creative freedom protected by tenure and job security. It is ironic that calls to transform the university are often cloaked in an ill-defined rhetoric of entrepreneurship, when true innovation relies on safe harbor for thought and experimentation. Perhaps an open campus and city-wide democratic conversation about what kinds of entrepreneurship best befit our particular mission might generate productive ideas for how to steer the beautiful new, empty building on our hard-hit campus. But there has been nothing of the kind. In the corporate model, administrators make those decisions.

The corporatization of the university has already resulted in an exponential growth of administrative costs at UWM. These administrative costs, along with inequity in the state funding formula, are a good part of why the campus now contends with the “structural deficit” on top of state-imposed austerity. It remains to be seen whether the Chancellor’s budgetary plans involve cutting administrative costs, or even taking a symbolic first million dollars out of the top salaries on campus.

What kind of a university system will Wisconsin have in the wake of the Board of Regents’ abrogation of academic freedom and university democracy? What does it mean to have the urban access campus of the state simultaneously plagued by debt and administrative bloat and increasingly tied to an undemocratic, corporate model?

We pause at the bottom of the cellar stairs and peer into the darkness.