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What is this, the academic version of "The Gong Show"? What’s next? Will UW System President Ray Cross tell Becky Blank and other chancellors to sit in a corner and count to 10 because they’re being "whiny"?
Yet there it was, a jaw-dropping paragraph in a Wisconsin State Journal story on Cross deciding not to have UW chancellors give verbal statements to the mostly politically appointed Board of Regents about the budget impact on their universities. Instead, they were to hand over terse written statements.
The newspaper article noted, "Cross … said in the interview he brought a red button to the meeting to be used if he felt a chancellor was complaining too much in a presentation. When he pressed the button, a sound effect shouted, ‘No whining!’"
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca M. Blank was a deputy U.S. Commerce Secretary. UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone has an MBA and a PhD. The UW-River Falls chancellor has a PhD in analytical chemistry. And so on. Sure sounds insulting.
Alex Hummel, UW System PR spokesman, says that, contrary to the State Journal report (which they didn't ask for a correction on), a chancellor brought the buzzer to the meeting and handed it to Cross. He added that it was possible Cross had "mischaracterized" who brought the buzzer to the State Journal reporter or it "got lost in translation."
"It (the buzzer) was in jest," he stressed. "It was lighthearted." No one actually was buzzed during their presentation, he added.
Either way, though, I think the buzzer being presented at all in the room is a colorful symbol of a bigger problem: the lack of wider public knowledge about the true impact of these cuts. The verbal statements should have been allowed as they would help change that; I for one would like to have heard what the chancellors had to say beyond short written statements. Why silence those voices or downplay them at all?
Frankly, I think the chancellors should be publicly shouting from the rooftops about the budget impact on their universities (backed up with facts, of course). The public has a right to know. Yes, there are many chancellors, but this is important, and a meeting that goes on for hours on end because there is so much to say would actually make a bigger point. It would also get greater coverage, meaning more people would learn what’s really going on.
There’s a lot to say about this topic. And that's the bigger point, by far. Students are losing jobs, instructors (many of whom bring critical skills into classrooms) are losing jobs or are about to, courses are not being offered anymore, class sizes are rising, morale has suffered and good people are leaving for other environs. Indeed, there’s a lot to say. Read for yourself.
Let’s take a few details from one university. Let’s randomly select Eau Claire. They report 197 fewer class sections, a 14 percent increase in average class size, 24 faculty resignations (a 150 percent increase), zero reserves, 15 percent of the workforce cut, 11 layoffs and eight contract non-renewals and so forth. Platteville included pictures reporting that students are being educated in a 50-year-old building. At UW-Stout, as just one example, faculty salaries are 79 percent of their peers' wages – far from the caricature painted of highly paid profs.
How is this moving Wisconsin forward? How is this good for the Wisconsin economy? Why, again, was this necessary?
I am a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, whose opinions are my own and do not represent the institution where I work. I would define myself as a political independent (and have for years now) because I can’t support decisions such as these: What the legislature and the governor did is retracting and causing harm to institutions that I think are critically important to Wisconsin’s economic future and just its general health as a society.
I received both of my degrees from UW-Milwaukee; I attended UW-Eau Claire before that. As a student from a rural area of the state, raised by a teenage mother near a town of just 200 people, the UW gave me opportunity. I see UW-Milwaukee granting my exceptionally talented and diverse students the same opportunity.
People talk constantly about the need to help the City of Milwaukee improve. Yet here is an institution that is doing just that. UWM has a diverse student body. It also has the most veteran students of any four-year university in a six-state region. It educates many first-generation students. Yet now I see actions taken with poorly articulated rationale that I believe will harm students and the quality of their education. I see poor morale and actual fear about the future.
We should be growing this institution and our flagship, Madison (wisely, of course). The UW institutions in smaller communities are also critically important.
Republicans talk about wanting people to "pick themselves up by their bootstraps" and be self-sufficient. Yet the UW institutions are helping people do just that. Oh, and if there’s supposedly a massive "slush fund," how come we need all of these cuts now, and universities have deficits? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.
Yes, let the chancellors elaborate for an hour each if they want. It would be understandable. Let others talk too. Add some students, including those who lost student jobs. Add some professors, whose research is imperiled, who didn’t leave or who opted not to come here. Bring on some of the ad hocs and fixed termers who bring critical workforce development skills into classrooms and who are now facing losing their jobs.
Yes, let’s have a discussion. Not having as high profile of one benefits the people who did the cuts, not the people being cut.
It’s just bad strategy to think that Republicans in the legislature won’t cut the budget again next time if leaders tick them off with dramatic rhetoric now. Isn’t that a little Stockholm Syndrome-ish besides?
If the legislature and governor who pushed the cuts in the first place using weak, unsupported rhetoric – supposedly lazy professors, always replenishing "slush funds" and so forth – become immune to the impact they’ve caused, why wouldn’t they cut more? They will say people in the UW were exaggerating before if they don’t clearly articulate the impact now.
The first Wisconsin State Journal story on the Cross matter said that the Board of Regents opted against the verbal presentations in favor of short written statements from each chancellor.
Then it came out a few days later, also in the State Journal, that Cross scrapped the verbal presentations because he was worried about a "two-hour drumbeat." Apparently, Cross pulled the plug after a dry-run of the five-minute presentations. He was worried people would think officials were exaggerating the impact of the budget cuts, saying, "We’re always thinking about the next budget." He didn’t want the presentations to be "overly dramatic."
But the impact is!
When Cross was tapped for the job by the Regents in 2014, a newspaper article reported that one of the reasons was his "harmonious relationships with top Republicans at the Capitol." Meanwhile, one of Gov. Walker’s oldest friends is the UW System’s vice president of university relations. The regents are almost all gubernatorial appointees.
Let’s give Cross the benefit of the doubt and assume he thinks he’s operating in the system’s best interest by reaching an olive branch to Republicans; I will say that he and the chancellors are trying to deal with a tough hand. Except that didn’t stop Republicans from imposing a massive budget cut. One thinks of the old fable relating to the frog and scorpion. Did he really think it wouldn’t sting? Yes, that’s dramatic whining (thank goodness, Ray Cross doesn’t have the ability to buzz me).
The only thing that will stop future cuts is for the public to understand the pain. By getting rid of verbal statements, the system relied on wonky writings. Hummel says the outreach on the budget is going to be a long, ongoing process that will include open forums in local communities. Good. However, a PR truth is that whomever defines the issue on the front end wins the game.
I think the chancellors should have given verbal statements in a statewide forum that allows the public to grasp the extent and connect the dots of overall impact. I don't get the rationale for silencing their voices beyond writing. That made it less of a story, and it almost ensured that it would largely be a story told in print. The broadcast media reaches the masses. If you don’t have video and soundbites, it’s hard for TV to make it a story. Emotional soundbites are memorable to people, and they capture impact.
This does not mean that I think the system is perfect; I don’t. I think there’s some waste, and some efficiencies could be found (and are; it’s not ALL bad), but I think the cuts were too big and too fast. The way to "reform" the system was through thoughtful study with numerous stakeholders (and don’t even get me started on the weakening of tenure and shared governance).
Have you noticed Gov. Walker has largely stopped talking about the "UW System budget cuts/reforms"? He used to brag about them. Now he never mentions them. Maybe it didn’t sell on Main Street. After all, the UW is an iconic brand. Maybe it’s already not playing well with the public. That’s the pressure point, not playing nice.
Meanwhile, I almost feel sorry for the system officials. They’re facing hardened political operatives on the other side, and it’s like they’re responding by writing term papers.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.