More top-down authority, less public access. This has been a hallmark of Gov. Scott Walker’s administration since its start. Now Walker wants to make the University of Wisconsin System more top-down, too, by transforming it into a so-called public authority.
A public authority is a corporate model for deregulating state services. Walker’s proposed UW System authority would deregulate higher education in Wisconsin by repealing dozens of state statutes designed to protect its public nature. These statutes also provide some of the strongest legal protections in the country for the quality of the academic workplace. In place of these laws, the authority would make the mostly unelected Board of Regents the absolute decision-makers about higher education in our state.
Of the 18 members of the Board of Regents, 16 are appointed by the governor. Under the authority, these appointees and their two colleagues would create all new policies for UW’s 26 campuses and extension programs. They could change everything from tuition to whether or not UW-Oshkosh — where I teach writing — has a College of Education. They could eliminate the services that UW-Extension provides to farmers and small business owners across the state. And they might be able to offer good bottom-line reasons for doing so.
But public higher education is about more than the bottom line. It provides transformative experiences that build knowledge and skills and prepare people to be citizens. A business’s primary goal is to make profit. To say that higher education and business serve different purposes isn’t to denigrate either. But different goals demand different priorities. The proposed authority would fundamentally alter the UW System’s current structure, which prioritizes public access and needs over profit.
One of the UW System’s most important priorities is to provide a well-rounded education to all people, regardless of class, race or sex. For hundreds of years, only rich men and religious students had the privilege of higher education. As our nation grew and states invested heavily in public universities, the democratization of higher education helped spur the unprecedented growth of the U.S. middle class. Public colleges continue to be one of the primary vehicles for upward mobility in the U.S., and almost every democratic country has followed this model of investing in public higher education to create widespread prosperity.
Now Walker is doing the opposite. Combined with historic budget cuts to higher education, his authority would make it harder for low- and middle-income people to get ahead. Walker’s budget eliminates mandatory recruitment of minority and disadvantaged students, and it funds higher education with sales tax revenues, which disproportionately burden lower-income people. With limited state money and no obligation to diversify, UW campuses would likely divert more resources into raising private money and recruiting wealthier students instead of educating Wisconsinites from all backgrounds.
In addition, tuition would almost certainly rise. Some UW campuses are already considering increasing tuition while enrolling more out-of-state students. In California and Michigan, this scenario has played out dramatically. Tuition has skyrocketed as has the number of out-of-state students. A 2014 paper by education researchers at the universities of Michigan, Missouri, and Arizona concluded that out-of-state students paying higher tuition crowd out low-income and under-represented minority students at public research universities. “The result,” University of Michigan professor Scott Kurashige wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “is that the university not only reflects the race and class inequities inherent in our society, it actually reinforces and aggravates them.”
Michigan’s example points toward a future UW-Madison no longer able to accept as many in-state students because out-of-staters pay the bills. And at campuses such as UW-Oshkosh, rising tuition, larger classes, and fewer support services would make college increasingly difficult to finish for the large number of students who work full-time.
At the same time, the UW System authority Walker proposes would make it harder for citizens to have a voice about higher education, further limiting their access to it. Now, if Wisconsinites don’t like how the UW System works, they can lobby their state legislators or elect someone else. But under an authority managed by the Board of Regents, this voice would be mostly lost.
Walker and UW System President Ray Cross haven’t addressed these potential problems. Instead, they focus on the “flexibilities” the authority would provide. Of course, having autonomy over purchasing — one of the primary flexibilities they cite — could help UW System campuses save money. But it’s not clear how much, and such autonomy could be granted without eliminating dozens of state statutes and compromising the UW System’s ability to serve all Wisconsinites.
By connecting an overhaul of the UW System to the biennial budget process, Walker has created a false sense of urgency. A change like this necessitates time, transparency, and opportunities for public input. The state of Virginia took several decades to arrive at a successful model for restructuring its public universities. Its model requires institutions to enroll certain numbers of in-state students and students from under-represented groups to receive more autonomy. Neither Walker nor Cross has proposed such requirements. And they are telling Wisconsin to make this monumental change within months.
Walker and Cross should have led by starting public dialogue about concrete options for the UW System. But since they didn’t, Wisconsinites should reject their radical departure from our state’s educational traditions so that all options for the UW System’s future can be vetted. We should demand greater investment in the UW System — one of the state’s best economic drivers — and demand that any change to the system include ensuring that it serves everyone in the state. The common good and our children’s ability to get a quality college education close to home are at stake.
Douglas Haynes is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. www.douglas-haynes.com
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