Big Trouble at Wisconsin Colleges

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continues his long assault on all of America’s progressive good ideas. First there were the unions. Having beaten them to a bloody pulp he moved on to the state university system, proposing in February to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin system to be all about meeting “the state’s workforce needs.” None of that truth seeking business for him. Now Wisconsin Republicans have gone a step further.

According to this piece in the Star Tribune:

The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted Friday to cut the University of Wisconsin’s budget by $250 million and eliminate tenure protections for faculty from state law — moves derided by Democrats who argued the changes would hurt both higher education and the state’s economy.

That’s a pretty serious change.

The proposal would remove tenure protections from law, leaving it to the UW Board of Regents to restore. The board, whose members are appointed by Walker, could also fire any staff or tenured faculty member.

Walker’s original proposal included the cuts tied with a tuition freeze and a transformation of UW’s organizational structure into a new model known as a public authority. Walker cast it as an extension of the 2011 law known his signature legislative achievement that essentially ended collective bargaining for most public workers, including K-12 teachers.

The move, understandably, provoked serious uproar at the state universities. This has led to a particular problem at the system’s flagship state university, in Madison, where Chancellor Rebecca Black must deal not only with the uncertainly of how to operate financially next year, but also with a faulty in revolt over her failure to protest enough at the proposed changes.

UniversityOfWisconsinFrom Inside Higher Ed:

While Blank has no ties to the proposed legislative language, faculty members have called her out on social media and elsewhere for what they see as her failure to sufficiently defend them from the Legislature.

In response to the proposed changes, some faculty members have said they’re pursuing faculty positions in other states, where the future of tenure and shared governance as they know it is more certain.

This is very real. I’ve been watching it on Twitter for the last few days.

And that’s a big problem, according to the piece above, because Blank has a human resources disaster if faculty leave and she can’t attract high quality new people.

While Blank says she will do all she can to preserve tenure protections, and will “not accept a tenure policy that is inconsistent with our peers, or that violates accepted standards,” it’s not really up to her to “accept” anything, if the legislature changes the law. While most faulty are willing to wait to see what happens, many are getting nervous.

According to the article:

Some [faculty] already have begun to leave, citing the state’s uncertain climate regarding higher education. The Wisconsin State-Journal, for example, reported that two top chemistry professors are leaving for faculty jobs in other states, and taking their labs and grants with them. In an interview with the State-Journal, one of the professors, Mahesh Mahanthappa, said he decided to leave in April for the University of Minnesota, in part due to massive forthcoming budget cuts to higher education in Wisconsin. But he called the newest threats to tenure “very, very troubling.”

“Institutional support is an important issue for faculty and how faculty see themselves,” Mahanthappa said. “If the state doesn’t support the university, it doesn’t help morale.”

And it sure doesn’t help recruiting either.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer