Commentary

The Withering of a Once-Great State University

July 13, 2015

Among the dozens of policy changes embedded in the budget signed on Sunday by Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin were measures to strike the definition of tenure appointments; insert detailed termination procedures for tenured faculty members in the event of unspecified "budget or program decisions"; subordinate the faculty to chancellors and the largely governor-appointed Board of Regents; and strip from faculty members their "primary responsibility" for academic and educational activities and personnel matters.

Those radical provisions fundamentally change the structure and spirit of the University of Wisconsin system, and their impact will be far-reaching — with some changes being felt immediately and others taking years if not decades to play out.

When Walker introduced his budget, in February, he caught flak for redefining the system’s mission statement, making "training the workforce" ascendant and eliminating the "search for truth" as the institution’s guiding principle. Walker was rightfully accused of seeking to eliminate the "Wisconsin Idea" — the vision, traced back to the UW president John Bascom and the Wisconsin-born progressive movement of Sen. Robert La Follette, that the role of our great state university should be, above all, to seek the truth and apply the knowledge gained therein for the benefit of students, state, and society as a whole.

While Walker eventually retracted the proposed changes in the mission statement, blaming a simple "drafting error" (a statement later proved false), the impact of his budget may ultimately be the death of the Wisconsin Idea — perhaps the culmination of a plan set in motion decades before by his largest financial backers, the Bradley Foundation, whose chief executive, Michael W. Grebe, was named Walker’s campaign chair. Notably, Grebe’s son Michael M. Grebe was named to the UW Board of Regents this summer.

As regent, Michael M. Grebe has publicly commented that the UW system should be run like a business, eliminating duplicative degree programs (as companies might eliminate duplicative manufacturing locations) and empowering chancellors to function more like corporate CEOs. When pushing those changes through the State Legislature, the Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, echoed those goals. For those of us who believe a university should be run like a university for the benefit of all, and not as a publicly funded R&D unit or job-training center for the benefit of private industry, the changes are hard to take.

Some of my colleagues have predicted a mass exodus of faculty members. That is a serious and disastrous possibility. Stories have already emerged of faculty members’ leaving because they see no future here. The latest insult to tenure and shared governance is piled upon chronic, debilitating injury brought about by more than a decade of budget cuts, with no end in sight. Add to that a political culture that vilifies professors as elitist, entitled, and lazy, and for many of us who have made Wisconsin our professional and family home, it is difficult to envision a future in this new environment.

There will most likely be an open season on our current best and brightest faculty members. However, the more devastating effects will play out over time, resulting in a steady decline more than a precipitous fall. In our highest-demand fields, our ability to recruit junior and midcareer faculty members will be severely hampered. In an academic culture focused on the coasts, it was already a challenge to get top talent to consider launching (or further building) their careers in "flyover" country. When I served on recruitment committees, I often pointed out that our state was so committed to the importance of scholarship that the Wisconsin Idea and protecting principles of tenure and shared governance were enshrined in state statute. No more.

It is possible that a combination of private money and public funds allocated for merit pay could be used to retain (or attract) some star faculty members, but it will come at a substantial financial and social cost. Even at UW, where our mission and system of shared governance has promoted a relative sense of equanimity and shared purpose, we already work in a caste system separating non-tenure-track instructors and research staff members from tenured or tenure-track faculty members. We, like all academia, have substantial variations in pay between faculty members in the humanities and in the STEM fields. But the future at Wisconsin will probably usher in a new class system among professors within fields, with privately sponsored elite faculty members sitting atop the hierarchy.

I grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee as the child of parents who did not finish college, but who saw that higher education was a worthy investment in a bright future. Though I did not know it at the time, they were instilling in me the Wisconsin Idea — the expectation that I would use my knowledge and skills not just for my own benefit but for the benefit of others. I have always felt loyal to my home state, so much so that I accepted a substantial reduction in pay to leave the private sector for a tenure-track position here, with the promise that I would have the academic freedom — my own tools and flexibility — to ask difficult questions and give answers that challenge the status quo to make a better world. It makes me physically sick to think that, due to one man’s presidential ambitions, so many of my colleagues and I will probably leave our once-great University of Wisconsin and so many brilliant minds will never come.

As for the impact of Scott Walker’s changes in the UW system on the rest of higher education, remember: The past is prologue. As he has said, repeatedly, "If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it everywhere."

David J. Vanness is an associate professor of population health sciences in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.