Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) will unveil a budget Tuesday night that aims to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s public universities over the next two years. Students, professors and state lawmakers are already blasting the plan — the deepest cut in state history — and tell ThinkProgress they’re organizing to block its passage.
Ahead of his presentation of the budget to the state legislature, Governor Walker told local right-wing radio host Charlie Sykes that his budget cuts over the past few years have created positive “efficiencies” at the university, and offered: “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.”
At the same time, Walker is calling for a nearly $500 million new basketball stadium in Milwaukee for the Bucks. Under his plan, the state would take out $200 million in bonds to pay for the arena, and the county and city of Milwaukee would have to chip in as well. The team’s owner has promised some private funding, and Walker claims the taxes the NBA players will pay will make up the difference.
Many university students and workers, including Eleni Schirmer with the Teaching Assistants Association, are outraged that the Governor would propose increasing sports funding while telling universities to shoulder cuts by developing “efficiencies.”
“It shows a fair amount of ignorance about what happens at a university,” she said. “He’s not telling the Bucks: ‘You should become an actually interesting team so people will watch your games.'”
Schirmer, the co-president of the UW graduate student workers’ union, told ThinkProgress her hundreds of members will hold an emergency meeting this week to organize against the proposed budget. She says campuses across the state are already suffering from cuts imposed by the Walker administration over the past few years.
“As TAs, we see the burdens on undergrads. We see that first-time college students’ acceptance rates are declining, that the number of students of color is declining. It changes the texture of the university,” she said, noting that financial aid is likely to drop further if the new cuts are approved.
An analysis of the UW-Madison’s enrollment data found that the percentage of students of color in the incoming class declined by more 1 percent between 2010 and 2014.
Schirmer also noted that a loss of public funding for research has pushed the universities to lean more heavily towards corporate-sponsored projects. “It’s a threat to academic freedom,” she said. “There’s an incentive to study what’s interesting and relevant to corporate interests, and what’s antagonistic or uninteresting to a corporate agenda will not be explored.”
In exchange for these cuts, Walker is offering the University of Wisconsin–Madison — where his own son currently attends — more autonomy, such as control over employee wages and benefits.
It’s a nearly identical plan to the one the governor unsuccessfully proposed four years ago, except this time around the price of autonomy for the school is about $50 million more expensive. And unlike in 2011, the new proposal would keep a tuition freeze in place for several more years, leaving the school less able to make up the lost money, and bringing fears of a massive tuition spike when the freeze expires in 2017.
Students at UW campuses across the state are preparing to fight against the proposed budget. They’ll be gathering in Madison in late February to lobby the state legislature to reject Walker’s plan and provide adequate funding to the universities. One of the main organizers of that effort is Amanda McGovern, the President of the United Council of UW Students and a Sociology major at UW Stevens Point.
“We’re going to show the UW Board of Regents and the legislators that students actually care about this,” she told ThinkProgress. “Our faculty are already talking about resigning, and we’ll lose the quality of their teaching which will then hurt the quality of a UW degree. Programs are already being cut from some of our four-year institutions while students are still enrolled in them. And in popular programs like Agriculture and Engineering, the schools are accepting more out-of-state students [who pay higher tuition], leaving some Wisconsin students unable to get those degrees that can really move them forward. It’s terrifying.”
As he begins his second term in the Governor’s mansion with a rumored eye on the White House, Walker is dedicating himself to building his national profile with trips around the country and national ads touting his “bold, fresh and new ideas.” But he will continue to grapple with discontent back home as he attempts to dig the state out of the $928 million hole.