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Yes, I’m being a bit hyperbolic but not by much. When I read the so-called UW "reforms" that passed the Joint Finance Committee the other day, that’s what popped into my mind: The Republican vision for the UW sort of reminds me of University of Phoenix.
And, no, that is not a good thing. Why would we want to do this to our storied university system? The UW is an iconic Wisconsin brand; it is a source of pride and a key engine to our economic future. Yet the changes have been pushed with shifting, weak and, in some cases, demonizing rationale. Why is any of this needed? It’s unearthed a very troubling anti-intellectual streak in modern Republicanism.
How does any of this move Wisconsin forward? It doesn’t. I find it all deeply troubling on multiple levels. And I think it will backfire on the GOP if the legislature and governor sign off on this. Just look at that Marquette poll that came out a while back and showed wide public opposition to UW "reforms."
Let me explain more. University of Phoenix is a for-profit, privatized school focused on skills training. The faculty are generally part-time, without job security, and they get paid almost nothing. Those who are full-time, which is the vast minority, don’t get tenure. There is no research mission. There’s certainly not shared governance. It’s a streamlined, economically focused degree factory with open admissions policies and no real reputation in academia.
See what I mean?
In case you missed it, the powerful Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature deleted tenure and indefinite status and from state statutes and made changes to shared governance, as well as making it a lot easier to lay off professors and academic staff, empowering administrators and rendering faculty subordinate to them. Oh, and on top of it, they voted to whack the system by $250 million (Disclosure: I am teaching academic staff at UW-Milwaukee, I have indefinite status, and my opinions are my own and do not represent the institution where I work).
Granted, the whole thing still needs to get through the full legislature (but everyone knows how powerful JFC is). And, granted, the Board of Regents could remake things like tenure and shared governance as policy (but they are almost entirely appointed by the governor, although I think they still will). One maneuver that almost no one paid attention to in the budget, though: The JFC would mandate that the Regents no longer grant indefinite status to anyone who doesn’t already have it after July 1. Academic staff – who are often the teaching workhorses of the universities – would have to be fixed termers.
So excuse me for floating the University of Phoenix model because it sounds like the legislature wants to turn everyone into at will employees under the whims of some super CEO. There is already a trend toward fixed termers in some ways, and it seems to lead to increased turnover, instability in departments and low morale, in my opinion. The Republican vision for UW seems almost entirely focused on economic development. That's not bad if it wasn't exclusionary.
If all of this stuff passes and is not reinstituted as policy by the Regents, I am willing to say you will see the immediate erosion of the UW system’s reputation in academia. It will be very hard to recruit high-caliber talent. That’s just a fact. Feeling demonized, and without job security, our best faculty and researchers may also go elsewhere. Why wouldn’t they? This, to them, is a BIG deal. Students suffer from staff turnover and budget cuts.
Tenure protects academic freedom and the ability of professors to perform controversial research and express controversial ideas (theoretically; just look at John McAdams at Marquette. But he wouldn’t have even had a fighting chance in expressing conservative views on campus and criticizing administration if he was a fixed term employee. He probably would just shut up). So these changes will stifle freedom of expression. People won’t want to risk it. I actually thought twice before writing this column.
The loss of morale is also stifling. Politicians are changing the terms of people’s employment that they were promised upon hire, have been in some cases working under for decades and that they worked extremely hard to get. Again: What’s the rationale? People misunderstand that people can be fired now who have tenure for truly awful job performance (like not showing up for class or something). It protects them from retaliation for their ideas.
Even worse, this is all being done on a foundation of poor argumentation. I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of facts. And the demonization of our university professors has been appalling. When I first floated my University of Phoenix analogy on my professional Facebook page, a conservative shared it to his wall with nasty comments accusing me of snobby elitism. It soon became clear that he wasn’t upset that I was saying the Republican vision for UW is the University of Phoenix model; he was upset that he thought I was trashing University of Phoenix, which he argued was elitist on my part, because it’s as good as any other university. I pointed out that it’s industry that regards a degree from, say, UW-Madison or Harvard as generally having more value than the University of Phoenix or other for-profit oriented universities of that ilk. I said I accept that my degree from UWM is not seen the same as a degree from Yale, although I think my degree has great value. This man actually tried to argue with a straight face that I was wrong.
What followed then: Vicious attacks from two other conservative commentators on his thread who called me such vile, sexist names I can’t even reprint them (vile names of the sort that I have been called many times by people on the left, by the way – neither side has a monopoly on hate, sadly).
He copied this entire thread – which was basically me being called vile, sexist names for making this analogy – to numerous of the state’s top Republicans (but if you know anything about me, I don't respond to bullying. I double down). The criticism became so absurd that one person started trashing my father and dead grandfather. Seriously. I was also accused of being an "overpaid taxpayer-funded leach" (I still earn less today than I did 11 years ago as a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). When I inquired what would be overpaid for a person with 25 years of professional experience, who has a master’s degree and works at a four-year state university, the person just called me more vile names.
I bring this up only because it’s revealing. I don’t think these sort of comments are isolated in general. I read and hear variations of these arguments all over the place – that professors are overpaid leaches who don’t work hard enough and whose research is ridiculous, etc. and so on. It’s not everyone saying it. But it seems to me the UW "reforms" are being built at least in part, and at least by some, on the demonization of others – those who have strived toward intellectual achievement and advancement. And that’s just wrong. It’s very, very wrong. It was wrong when K12 teachers were demonized, and this is wrong now. I think Republicans are better than this.
This seems to be the current MO. Demonize and attack those who show ideological disagreement, even on some things. What happened to the old Ronald Reagan belief that a person who disagrees with you 20 percent of the time is a friend, not a traitor? (and, again, I see this trend occurring on both "sides." I've been called every name in the book by people on the left.)
In fact, when one of these Internet trolls then accused me of not being a "true conservative," I said this kind of thing is exactly why I’ve been proud to call myself an independent for several years now. I don’t want to be part of a climate of demonization. And I like intellectuals.
I thought conservatives were against "share the wealth" ideologies in which everyone is not supposed to strive for more. I would think they would praise people who work to better themselves by obtaining terminal degrees or attending four-year universities. I would think that research and intellectual inquiry should have a place in any forward-moving society. But this is almost the reverse American dream. I guess you’re not supposed to try to better yourself this way or you become a "snobby elitist." I wasn’t aware when I toiled all those hours to get my master’s degree that I was doing something elitist, looking down on Joe Sixpack (or Joe the Plumber).
The anti-intellectual streak in the current Republican Party is just weird. You can see it play out in other areas too, such as with all those scientist positions at the DNR and the better funding given to tech schools and the changes in teacher licensure (some of which I support) and even in the debate about Gov. Walker not having a degree (I don’t really care that he doesn’t have a degree, by the way; he has a policy track record now for voters to assess). I don't demonize those without degrees or with a technical trade; I just think people with degrees shouldn't be demonized either. It's bizarre.
When did scientific research become the target? And why? I suppose science can counter ideology. And I do think a lot of this is about ideology when you back up and boil it all down. If universities weren’t perceived as liberal provinces, they wouldn’t be such targets. But how is that any different from the IRS scandal?
Critics of this column will roll their eyes and predictably bring up the "slush fund" of several years ago, arguing current changes with old, distorted non-facts. The so-called slush fund was largely committed monies, and some campuses are now running deficits. That old story now seems like the paving of the way to create public will to do all of this.
Critics will also say it’s whining, that the UW should play its part and is bloated and full of waste. But state funding has been declining for years while other states are investing in higher education. And this is a budget that increases spending, including for the governor’s own office, and you should see some of the technology we have ...
Those critics miss the fundamental nature of these changes when taken as a package and the manner in which they will alter the national reputation of UW and not in a good way. Back to the University of Phoenix model.
The Republicans have a point in some ways, also, but it’s drowned out by how far they are taking things, in my book, and by the demonization rhetoric.
Some nuances: I’ve seen shared governance work really well, and I’ve seen it work terribly. Furthermore, everyone doesn’t share in governance now; academic staff are locked out from decisionmaking over budgets and priorities on executive committees that do the heavy lifting of departments, and I think that's wrong.
Republicans are upset there is not more ideological diversity on campus – and they are right about that (I could tell you horror stories about the names some people have called me over politics on campus. It can be a nightmare to be perceived as conservative on campus – and imagine now).
I’ve seen cases in which I wish the deans had more power to do things they wanted to do that made good common sense, but they seemed hamstrung by endless process and committee. It’s hard to institute fiscal efficiency sometimes when there’s rule by committee – many committees. I do think at times the workforce development/skills training mission of UW is not respected enough by some people on campus (not all); however, I also am a believer that students benefit from a blend. I think skills training and connections to industry matters and should be respected and fortified, but I also have a healthy respect for the value of scholarly research and intellectual inquiry. I don’t want a university system that is just focused on strict economic development. And I support tenure and indefinite status, firmly.
It’s not that there’s no waste in the UW system, either (ever look up how many administrators there are in the UW system HQ alone?). I could find places to cut if you gave me the budget. But not this much, and not this fast, and not with this sort of rationale.
I also don’t think you can reverse engineer reform with massive budget cuts – especially reform the need for which you are not clearly articulating. And I don’t think these "reforms" are hitting the target in a lot of ways. And that it's wrong to try to root out sources of ideological opposition. What I think these changes would do is so fundamentally alter how the UW is seen with its peers that the reputation of the university as we know it will be diminished.
And I just don’t see how that’s a good thing for Wisconsin. Again: How does this move the state forward? And don't go on and on about fiscal efficiency with all that record borrowing in the proposed budget for roadbuilding. These are choices.
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.