Last week, faculty at UW-Madison, La Crosse and UW-River Falls voted in favor of resolutions of no confidence in University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents. A wave of such resolutions will sweep across the state in coming weeks, on the docket in faculty bodies in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Superior, Stevens Point and at the UW-Colleges.
A symbolic action, these resolution highlight faculty alarm over the effects of fiscal austerity on the university system.By publicly decrying the current direction of the UW system, we collectively affirm the best and most democratic values of the Wisconsin Idea: maximum access to education for everyone.
Like many of my colleagues, I have had no confidence in the current regime for over a year: from the first announcements of the massive budget cuts in January, 2015, to the passage of Act 55 in June of that year, to Ray Cross’ ill-starred advocacy of turning the university into a public authority, to the false governance promises of faculty bodies convened, and then deliberately ignored and downright circumvented by the Board of Regents.
But we are used to the slow process of shared governance. So we have been patient, assessing the situation, trying to actively participating in improving it: waiting it out.
We are no strangers to hard work.We have attended listening sessions and meetings, participated in task forces and organized teach-ins, researched and written op-eds and fact sheets and press releases.
And now, in concert with colleagues across the system, with consciousness of all we have lost and stand to lose, it finally makes sense to say it: No Confidence, rippling across the state, and beyond.
Voting for these resolutions, faculty reject the austerity imposed by the Wisconsin state legislature on public higher education. For example: state monies funded 40% of UWM’s budget in 1996; currently, they account for 13%, making UWM more reliant on tuition than some private colleges. Dwindling funding of our public university system has resulted in a terrible math, in which education becomes a politically imposed zero sum game. In order to survive the spread sheets, each campus, each college, each department and program must calculate immediate savings above any long-term endeavor or educational objective.
In the cruel political calculus of austerity, a state-mandated freeze on tuition has responded to widespread and justified discontent with the increased cost of a college education. But because this freeze has been accompanied by radical cuts to public funding, students are likely to pay the already too-high tuition, only to find their access to the resources they need to succeed in college severely limited. This, in turn, compels them to spend more time completing their education, which then costs them more in tuition. Funding the freeze instead would mean increasing state appropriations for education to lower tuition and increase student access to the fine education still afforded by the UW system.
The terrible math of austerity is accompanied by a moral language that begins with the state legislature and Board of Regents and reverberates on down, through regents, system and campus administrators into departments, offices and classrooms. As my colleague Chuck Ryback points out, this moral language elevates supposed fiscal values like the much-vaunted “flexibility” over non-market based, educational calculations. The moral language of austerity pits education and educators against budget-slashing legislators and those who carry their water, like the Board of Regents and the UW System administration.
By voting no confidence, faculty lift up an alternative moral language to the one imposed by fiscal austerity. Universities in states like Missouri and Alabama have recently repudiated austerity in favor of funding public education.This is possible for Wisconsin as well.
We affirm that it is a sacred trust to work as a public employee, because it means that our labor serves and is funded by the people of our state. In light of that sacred trust, we assert the values of the Wisconsin Idea: that maximizing access to an education driven by the fearless “sifting and winnowing” of research is part of a functioning democracy .
Over the long course of the past year and a half, we have seen countless examples of democracy in action, in defense of the UW system and of public education in our state. Widespread public outrage caused Governor Walker to falter in his initial attempt to change the language of the Wisconsin Idea. Across the system, students have protested the effects of austerity, rallying against the cuts and tuition hikes. In February, forty Blackout protesters attended the Board of Regents to advocate for students of color at UW; they were not allowed to speak or even to give their list of demands to the convened body.
By voting no confidence, we side with the students, who know that austerity limits their futures. This moment belongs to all of us. Our dynamism and creativity stands against the grim horizon offered by undemocratic, corporate vision of the Board of Regents and President Cross.
A vote of no confidence is a vote for a democratic future, a vote to lift the pall that has fallen over our state in the past five years. It is at once a small, symbolic act and the beginning of a sea change: a hope for unity and vision against the regime of cynicism and cruelty.