MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — When the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents gathered at UW-Milwaukee in early June to discuss how to deal with the onslaught of provisions in Governor Scott Walker’s budget that would slash their budget and rewrite their tenure rules, those voicing criticism of the plan were confined to a roped-off “Protest Area” at the back of the hall.
The demonstrators, dressed in academic robes and wearing tape over their mouths, held signs reading, “Budget cuts hurt students” and, “No real tenure=no free speech.”
One protestor, UW-Whitewater history professor Nikki Mandell, refused to stay in the protest area, and positioned herself at the front of the room. She told ThinkProgress that while she hopes the University administrators stand up to the legislature and push back on the changes, she is “troubled, disappointed and fearful that they seem to be moving in the opposite direction.”
On June 4, her fears were confirmed. The Board of Regents, most of them appointed by Governor Walker, voted against a resolution telling the Governor and state legislature to back off the tenure changes. Those changes would allow tenured faculty members to be fired or laid off without due process “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision.” Current law says tenured faculty only be removed for just cause and only after due notice and a hearing.
Current professors are speaking openly about fears they could lose their job because of their political views or for voicing criticism of the state administration.
Already, UW campus chancellors are sounding the alarm about top faculty getting poached by other universities as a result of this change.
After a groundswell of protest over Governor Walker’s proposal to cut $300 million dollars from the UW budget, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee revised the cut down to $250 million. The cut would not only be one of the largest in the university’s history, it will be one of the largest cuts to higher education in the country.
While the budget proposal extends the current tuition freeze for two years, some lawmakers predict a massive tuition spike when that expires in 2017.
Wisconsin already trails its Midwest neighbors in higher education spending, according to new figures released by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The state, under Governor Walker, already spends less per student than the national average, and Mandell says she’s worried the cuts would exacerbate this trend.
“The UW is funded by taxpayers and should be here not only for past taxpayers but their children and grandchildren,” she said. “The additional $95 million the university asked from the state legislature, which is absolutely critical for maintaining the system at a bare minimum, has now turned into a $250 million cut. That doesn’t work.”
But UW System President Ray Cross had a different reaction. He released a statement saying he and his fellow administrators “appreciate” the slight reduction of the budget cut and, “Overall, we are pleased.”
Student activists who have been protesting in the state capitol, including recent UW-Green Bay graduate Paul Ahrens, are not pleased.
“That’s like, ‘Oh, thank you, you beat me six times instead of 10.’ No! Stop beating us, period,” he said. “I want to see the cuts gone, or at least reduced to less than $100 million dollars.”
Ahrens also took issue with another controversial policy written into the new budget that strips students and faculty of much of their “shared governance” rights that give them a say in campus decisions, including how to spend student fees. The change would further concentrate power in the hands of the Governor’s appointed Regents — the newest of whom recently compared the universities to manufacturing plants and suggested eliminating some majors and degree programs.
“I don’t mean this in a religious way, but shared governance is sacred,” Ahrens told ThinkProgress. “They’re changing it from [students] having responsibility in these decisions to just making recommendations. Now, for example, they could say, ‘You know what? I don’t like that political group. Stop funding them.’”
Mandell agreed, adding, “There’s nothing to restrain more administrative creep. This will steal students’ money by allowing the chancellors, in times of short budgets, to take the segregated fees students and their families are paying and use them for other purposes.”
Ahrens was recently accepted at UW-Madison for a dual-masters program in public administration and urban planning, but due in part to impending budget cuts, they were unable to offer him funding. This fall, he will be going to Cornell University instead, and said he is sad to be leaving the state, but plans to fight attend rallies and meetings to fight the budget cuts over the next few weeks. With Governor Walker’s budget currently stuck in committee, protesters see a possible opening to win further revisions.
“This is neoliberalism. This is privatization. I haven’t seen a lick of evidence this will help anybody,” he said. “There is no middle ground when they’re trying to destroy this institution, because without education, there is no democracy. “