Three More Horsemen of the Ongoing Apocalypse: The University of Wisconsin Under Siege

Here are the new policies that were adopted this month, or will be adopted next month by the Wisconsin Board of Regents:

These policies are part of a dangerous trend, in which traditional stakeholders in the university, such as communities, citizens, students, staff, and faculty, have less power than the Board of Regents and unelected UW system administration.  Despite assurances that long-hallowed principles of shared governance would endure the  changes wrought by Act 55 in 2015, these new policies are indication of dictatorial tendencies in the UW system and beyond.

These policies respond to initiatives proposed in the Wisconsin state legislature or, in the case of the administrative hiring policy, dispensed by the governor’s budget. To be clear: these policies do not respond to laws that have been democratically adopted by state governance.  Instead, these policies anticipate the possibility of legislation that is or has been discussed in the statehouse.  Essentially, this is rule by UW system administrators: a powerful and unelected “deep state” whose central function is to protect themselves, not to promote the well-being of taxpayers and/or students.

Characteristic of their creation outside of traditional governance channels, these policies were not vetted by stakeholders. For example: located in predominantly rural areas around the state, the UW colleges are crucial to fulfilling the Wisconsin Idea’s mandate of reaching every family in the state.  Unlike the other campuses in the system, the UW Colleges are owned by their counties.  But officials in counties most likely to be affected by the restructuring plan had no word of it before it was leaked to the press and then formally announced last week. Interviewed on WISN about the new plan, UW system President Ray Cross acknowledged that local communities and campuses were not consulted. Instead, UW system relied on the advice of “business leaders” and “research groups.”

Similarly, faculty senates received drafts of the “freedom of expression” and administrative hiring policies less than a week before the October Board of Regents meeting. They were invited to comment as individuals at a UW system website.  Academic freedom is a principle so crucial to the University of Wisconsin that the policy quoted the Wisconsin Idea of “untrammeled inquiry” as justification for imposing harsher sanctions against political protest than sexual assault on campus . But, inconsistent with the very ideas of democratic inquiry it cited, this new policy passed with no time allotted for a broader vetting by governance, or by students, parents or other constituencies with an important stake in campus life.

Formulated in haste and outside of traditional channels, these policies are likely to be implemented haphazardly, possibly to the detriment of students.  Planned for implementation starting in June, 2018, the restructuring of the UW system is being promoted for its economic efficiencies and benefits to students. No  data has been forthcoming about what the economic or logistical outcomes of such a vast move will be.  It’s likely, for example, that the restructuring will disrupt established connections between two-year and BA-granting institutions, making transferring and completing a degree more difficult for students.  Having just completed a lengthy “regionalization” plan, these campuses will now be compelled to adapt to the new plan.

This kind of reshuffling creates turmoil and chaos within a large, vital state organization, costing taxpayer dollars in the short run. Without asking for a fair, impartial economic analysis, we have no way of knowing whether this will lead to savings in the long run. We can be assured that it will further centralize power in the state, at the expense of citizens, students, parents, and faculty.

In a compelling appeal to the Board of Regents, the UW Colleges Faculty Senate requests that the core principles of the Colleges be preserved, including the preservation of tenure and open access to “Nontraditional students, students from rural communities who want to remain at home to save money or help family; veterans who need local support; and students with caregiving and work responsibilities.”  Will this measured and sensible approach be possible under the new plan?  No one seems to know.

Evidence of haste and poor planning abounds. In the spring of 2017, UW system administrators commissioned an ambitious, $900,000 “Title and Total Compensation Study” from a private consulting firm, to be completed in 2019.  How does the newly adopted administrative hiring policy fit into this expensive and not-yet completed picture? Not specified.

What is crystal clear about the administrative hiring policy is that it will allow the Board of Regents to hire university chancellors who do not have academic backgrounds. Without the benefit of even the diminished tenure protections now available in Wisconsin, these new administrators will be positioned to comply with directives from above, rather than promoting academic freedom or innovation on our campuses.

The accelerated pace, autocratic style and direction of current UW policies indicates that they are part of a much broader, national assault on public education and on democratic government.  Although Governor Walker came to power promising Wisconsinites a relief from “big” federal government and more control at the local level, his appointed Board of Regents instead appropriates power away from citizens, students and communities.  This direction contradicts the critical mission of public higher education as well as the very nature of the Wisconsin Idea.

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Three More Horsemen of the Ongoing Apocalypse: The University of Wisconsin Under Siege

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