Flexibility or Coercion? The Brutal March toward a Public Authority

The proposed transition of the University of Wisconsin from the current public system controlled by a democratically elected state legislature to a semi-public entity under the supervision of an appointed Board of Regents has been advertised as having the virtue of “flexibility.” Proponents of this transition, including UW System President Ray Cross, emphasize that individual campuses and administrative units may be able to save money and gain administrative autonomy in a public authority. In an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on February 24, Cross extolled the “bold idea” of the public authority, claiming that it would lead to both freedom and savings in human resources, purchases and acquisitions, and construction projects.

Freedom with fiscal savings: if this sounds too good to be true, it just may be. It is certainly worth examining these promises in more detail. Do decreasing democratic governance and the likelihood of further privatization represented by the transition to a public authority represent innovation? Does this move advance freedom and savings, as advertised?

At first glance, added flexibility seems like an attractive proposition. Universities, like most large institutions, are beset by what sometimes seem to be hundreds of petty rules governing everything from hiring and firing to the purchasing of office supplies. The possibility that the transition to a public authority will allow some loosening of these rules holds out the promise of freedom from the strictures of institutional life. In this time of diminished public funding, it is also financially compelling. Flexibility, the argument goes, will allow individual units to be more nimble, to cut costs and be able to put needed monies into essential programming.

But where would these much-touted savings and freedoms come from? The public university system is one of the great economies of scale of the twentieth century. The creation of the University of Wisconsin system brought a wide range of different institutions together: at this writing, there are 26 campuses in the system, serving 180,000 students; a million more students enroll in programs offered through statewide extension programs. This vast system is united by a set of principles— the Wisconsin Idea, which extolls the importance of intellectual inquiry to the citizenry of the state — and governance, articulated in Wisconsin State Statue Chapter 36.

Formed to educate and serve the people of Wisconsin, the vast UW system levies formidable purchasing and contracting power. This was the idea: to give the disparate educational institutions in the state a unified economic and political voice. The sheer size of the system leads to some inconsistencies and inefficiencies: these are what the term “flexibility” promises to free us from. “Flexibility” seems then to mean liberation from the strictures of the inefficiencies of the twentieth century economy of scale. Individuals and institutional units will be free to seek more efficient ways to purchase and contract.

In the rush towards making UW a public authority, it would make sense for the proponents of this transition to have some numbers predicting savings and pinpointing where they might come from. But there is absolutely no evidence, in any of the ample debates around this issue, of such numbers. Where Cross and others refer knowingly to savings, they offer absolutely no evidence to support these claims. In the absence of evidence of savings through administrative flexibility, it makes sense to assume that the gain would not come from loosing the strictures of university fiscal procedures. So, what kind of flexibility will the move to the public authority convey? Where will the savings come from?

The “flexibility” promised by the proposed public authority system is not one of freedom from institutional constraints. Instead, institutional and administrative flexibility will come out of the increased coercion of faculty, staff and students.

If Chapter 36 is abrogated, administrators will have the flexibility to hire and fire faculty and staff at will. In fact, the UW system is likely to become even more dependent on the low-paid, highly flexible labor of adjunct instructors and private contractors.

For example, at UW-Superior this past November, administration laid off custodial staff, citing budget shortfalls, and replaced them with a much smaller workforce provided by a private contractor. This new, flexible workforce, is lower paid and lacks access to the benefits provided to university personnel.

At the same time that UW employee labor will become far less flexible and free with the transition to a public authority, the lives of UW students will be increasingly constrained: by debt. While a tuition cap is currently effective, the expense of becoming a public authority, combined with the cuts that accompany this move, lead administrators to aspire to raising tuition. Rising tuition will mean enhanced debt loads and a lack of freedom and flexibility in life choices for our students.

While the move to a public authority is advertised as bold and innovative, there is nothing new about an administrative power grab that comes at the expense of working and middle class people: the students and staff of the UW system. Advertised as a new system for the twenty-first century, the transition to a public authority as it is currently conceived in Wisconsin represents the standard class warfare of the twentieth.

Flexibility or Coercion? The Brutal March toward a Public Authority

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