Wisconsin considers a massive queen sacrifice

University of Wisconsin crestSometimes a campus achieves a queen sacrifice on its own; other campuses get queen sacrifices thrust upon them.  Case in point: the University of Wisconsin system, facing enormous cuts in financial support from that state’s ambitious governor.  Scott Walker has proposed cutting $300 million from the university system over two years, “the largest budget cuts in their history“.  Walker also called for a tuition freeze over the same period, which would block the system from raising funds by charging students more.

Walker also proposed revising the text of the Wisconsin idea, the system’s mission statement.  Changes would have removed language about public good, emphasizing instead a mission of job-training.  The governor then retracted that proposal after public criticism, claiming bureaucratic confusion.  A Facebook group, Save The Wisconsin Idea, has been organized.

Walker also offers the university system greater autonomy from the state.

How is this a queen sacrifice?  Wisconsin leaders have said that deep staff cuts would be required for the institution to survive.  Chancellor Rebecca Blank has spoken of “layoffs and program cuts”.  For example,

Blank said she would have to raise out-of-state tuition until it’s second- or third-highest in the Big Ten and raise the cap on out-of-state students. She said she’s also pondering leaving open faculty positions unfilled, reducing student programs, reducing financial aid and laying off staff.

Call it a forced queen sacrifice.

This story is still in early days, especially as the proposed budget now enters the sausage-making process.  But I can offer some reflections on some of the forces at play, and see how these play out on the national stage beyond Wisconsin:

  1. Governor Walker apparently pitches this as part of an austerity drive to address a large ($2 billion US) budget deficit.  We’ve seen this from other states during the first few years after the 2008 financial crisis.  Perhaps this rationale will occur elsewhere, depending on local conditions and policies.
  2. Walker is a leading Republican politician, widely expected to run for president in 2016, and also ideologically firmly on the right.  This budget battle could play out in partisan terms, as an appeal to America’s conservatives, hitting a variety of buttons: cutting government, improving efficiency, teaching elitist educators a thing or two.  It’s possible that Democrats will openly resists, making defending higher education an issue for the long election campaign.  This has not generally been the case since 2008, but is a possible trend to watch.
  3. Note the already low level of funding that university system receives from the state, 17% or so.  What a change over the past two generations.
  4. Technology doesn’t seem to play a role in the debate.  No sign of, say, expanding distance learning, or drawing on MOOCs.
  5. How many other state governments are learning lessons from this story?  Imagine if the cuts are reduced, but are implemented.  Will some Republican (and Democratic) governors and legislators see a way to shift dollars around?

What do you think of the Wisconsin story?

(thanks to Peter Sands, Terri Johnson, and John Sener for their thoughts on Facebook)


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12 Responses to Wisconsin considers a massive queen sacrifice

  1. I am glad I live and teach in Minnesota. Although our system (MnSCU) is having budget issues and mandates forced on us by the governor this session, the system has seen the beginnings of a reinvestment. Tuition frozen for the last two years, and set to maintain that freeze in the next biennium. Minnesota is fortunate than investments have been made as the result of a $1.2 billion surplus. We’ve fared far better than our near neighbors to the east since 2008.
    I am also interested what you think of the other part of Walker’s gambit: easing the oversight of for profit institutions. http://host.madison.com/news/local/education/university/scott-walker-s-budget-cuts-for-profit-college-oversight-board/article_3b97dc7e-df79-5670-8ea8-21edb6caac10.html
    At a time when retention and graduation rates are becoming metrics of performance tied to budgetary allotments, disbanding an oversight board that tries to implement such standards on for-profit schools seems a step in the wrong direction. Particularly since so many have come under fire nationally in the last few years.
    But as you noted – the sausage making now begins. We will see what the WI state assembly comes up with. Whatever the plan, it is possible Minnesota schools may reap a benefit from the exodus of students choosing border schools and returning to MN.

    • Kudos to Minnesota. How did you guys manage both a fat surplus and the will to spend some of it on .edu?

      Walker’s cutting that board makes sense for his free-market ideology.

      • The surplus came about because Democrats held both state houses and the governorship. They raised taxes on the top 2% that allowed for a structurally balanced budget going forward. The issues now are transportation, elder-care, and education. I actually ran for a state house seat last fall, but did not prevail. I watch this stuff closely as it is my livelihood and is of concern in rural Minnesota.

      • Thank you for your perspective, Jay. Will you run for a seat once more?

        Eldercare: are you referring to the state matching funds for Medicare and Medicaid, or to staffing hospitals, or pensions?

  2. ghsmith76 says:

    Good observation. I was shocked by Walker’s attack on Higher Ed but then checked to see that he does actually have the popular support of Wisconsin voters. Myself, living in and being from the midwest I would never have guessed that Wisconsin would lead such a charge or queen sacrifice. But you make good points about Scott Walker’s national political ambitions. There are a lot of americans frustrated with what higher education has become in their states. This really could play well for the conservatives and strike a serious blow to public higher education across the country. I will keep an eye on how this plays out.

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