Commentary

This Is What Wisconsin's 2.5% Budget Cut Looks Like

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 23, 2015

I recently learned that when the semester ends in May, nearly half of my immediate co-workers, maybe more, will be out of a job. Of course, adjuncts like me are often "out of a job," since our contracts go only from semester to semester. But because I’m an adjunct in the University of Wisconsin system — the one that’s made headlines thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $300-million budget cuts over the next two years — this time it feels different.

Ask the governor, and it shouldn’t feel that different. "Our budget changes are only 2.5 percent of the total UW system operating budget," he has said. After all, what business or family couldn’t manage a 2.5-percent cut, right? But as others have pointed out, such a number is so misleading that it wouldn’t pass the sniff test in any basic course in statistics. That’s because almost all of the system’s total operating budget is nondiscretionary, meaning the cuts must come from the much smaller part of the budget that can be raised or lowered. In reality, the proposal slashes state support for the university system by 13 percent and includes a 25-percent cut in funding for "essential educational functions," such as instruction, student advising, and programming.

So when you put it that way, the governor expects the 13 four-year universities of the UW system to respond to a reduction that, if it were to happen in the private sector, would shutter many businesses and leave families unable to pay the rent or mortgage. And while none of the campuses expects to close, each is being transformed. That’s because Walker’s proposed changes would monumentally shift the tradition of shared governance, further dismantle the tenure system, and effectively privatize much of the system’s work force. Many employees are being told to expect to lose their jobs this spring. Many who remain will find that their jobs require significantly more work for less pay.

Those of us on the losing end feel shocked, even though we shouldn’t. The cuts today are bound up with transformations that many university systems are experiencing, and which here in Wisconsin are deeply connected to Walker’s previous attacks on public-employee unions.

By contrast, many politicians, consultants, contractors, university administrators, and even some faculty members are not shocked at all; on the contrary, they are busy rolling out a plan for the system that they have worked hard to develop and been committed to putting into effect for some time. In fact, no sooner were the cuts announced than administrators were quietly handing down the plans to meet the newly proposed budgets, and in some cases even exceed them.

So what does a 2.5-percent cut look like on my campus, in River Falls? The administration’s proposal has been to eliminate jobs by way of slashing general-education requirements, which the campus has historically been committed to. In this plan, general-education requirements would be cut nearly in half, with numerous requirements taken off the books.

The current 13 elective credits would balloon to 63. Open seats in major courses or any in elective courses that could prove to generate sufficient enrollment would be filled by students taking courses of interest to them on the way to their degree. Rather than be held back by the regulated requirements of general education, students will be invited to more freely and flexibly choose what their education should look like outside their majors.

But what is being promoted as a newfound and innovative flexibility for students has some real drawbacks. While the Faculty Senate was recently able to mount a temporary defense of the structure of general education, the number of students benefiting from that structure has been drastically reduced, in large part by lowering test-out requirements for previously required writing courses. Starting next year, many students at River Falls will be able to receive a degree having taken only one writing course.

And while the defense of general education looks like a significant win for faculty here, the fact remains that dozens of courses will no longer need to be staffed. Put simply: cutting courses means cutting teachers.

Here’s how it stands in the English department, where I work. In the fall semester, the department employed 16 adjunct instructors, primarily to teach general-education courses. For many, the load is four courses per instructor. This month we were informed that at most, 10 instructors might be retained, with many offered three courses each — meaning a likely 25-percent pay cut. Add that to the six tenure-line faculty members who will not return to teach (nor be replaced) next year, and in this best-case scenario, we’ve lost almost a third of our teachers, down to 29 from the 41 when we started back in September.

Elsewhere on campus, things aren’t much better. Many clerical, maintenance, and library staff will lose their jobs, and even more jobs that are open will go unfilled. Those workers who remain will find greatly expanded duties for the same pay — or for less pay. In some departments with fewer adjuncts, tenure-line faculty members may not have their contracts renewed.

And students — who until now have been able to count on River Falls’s small classes as an affordable alternative to the impersonal lecture halls of other universities — should expect to find themselves taking classes scheduled farther apart, and with much larger enrollments, to maximize the availability of classrooms with large seating capacities.

As for myself, even though I teach English, now and again I still have to do some math. As a recently hired adjunct at River Falls with a terminal degree, I am paid $1,300 per credit. Were I to teach three courses per semester, I could expect to make less than $24,000 before taxes; were I to crack the "top five" and be able to teach more credits, I stand to make a little more. But if I find my schedule spread out over more of the week, commuting costs from my apartment in Minneapolis where my wife works could nearly double. Since I would most likely be teaching early in the morning and into the evening, I might have to quit my second job, where I usually work evening shifts.

This "opportunity" doesn’t add up — it subtracts. It subtracts good teachers like myself and my co-workers from the classrooms of the University of Wisconsin system. It subtracts vital clerical and maintenance staff from our campus. And, most disturbing of all, it subtracts from the quality of education that students receive on our campuses. It only adds to the list of attacks on working people — students, staff, and faculty — here in Wisconsin that are designed to further break unions, dismantle public education, and cut jobs.

This is what a 2.5-percent budget cut looks like. Not that different, right?

John Conley is an English instructor at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.