University of Wisconsin’s “Budget Crisis”

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

Chase Erwin

ON FEBRUARY 3, Governor Scott Walker — the same governor who has just signed right-to-work legislation, and who likens his 2011 confrontation with public sector workers to fighting the Islamic State — announced over $300 million in cuts from the University of Wisconsin system.

Walker claims that, in exchange for this latest budget reduction, he is offering to convert the UW system into a “public authority,” a move he says will give administrators the legal “flexibility” to radically reduce their overhead.

Just one in a long line of funding cuts the system has faced over the last decade, Walker’s latest is by far the largest, at once eliminating 13% of its total revenue.

To put this in perspective, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I work and study, will lose something like $40 million, which equals the entire operating budget of our business school. Coupled with a state-mandated tuition freeze, campuses like UWM will be left with nothing to compensate for their lost revenue.

As administrators within the system’s 26 campuses form committees with foreboding titles like UWM’s “Budget Task Force,” students, staff and faculty are beginning to speculate: Will university employees lose their jobs? After the freeze ends, will tuition skyrocket, making education less accessible for students born outside of privilege?

To absorb the cuts, will campuses need to expand class sizes or decrease admissions? Will they have to cut departments, programs or centers? Or worse, would the system consider shutting down entire campuses?
What has made these questions particularly troubling, though, is how many UW workers feel the lack of a frame of reference with which to contemplate them. Even seasoned veterans of higher education, professors and administrators with decades of experience and sprawling CVs, claim that they had never even heard of universities sustaining losses this large.

The severity of this situation is pushing many academics to a level of political action beyond their comfort zone. Professor Richard Grusin, an outspoken opponent of Walker’s “public authority” scheme, confesses. “I did not go into higher education to bring about social justice, but to teach students to… think about and hopefully to love the literature I loved. Which is why I find my current position, in which I find myself consumed with the politics of higher education, so distressing and depressing. I did not sign up for this.”

“Unprecedented” But Not Unique

The word “unprecedented” quickly graduated to the status of tired cliche, even when it was the only word available to describe the situation.

But as troubling as it has been, the UW system’s situation is hardly unprecedented. Wisconsin is not the only state this year that has dramatically reduced university funding. Tennessee, Arizona, Louisiana and Illinois have all announced they would each be slashing at least $100 million from their university-system budgets.

Louisiana’s university system will lose enough funding to prompt campus closures. While Wisconsin’s budget reductions are the largest, they only barely achieve that distinction.

Nor are policies like these really new. They are the apotheosis of a three-decade trend in defunding state-run higher ed. Tax revenue, which after WWII accounted on average for about 60% of a public university’s budget, now in most cases accounts for less than 28%. To call our state-run universities “public” is almost a misnomer.

Since the early eighties, lawmakers have used higher ed funding reductions as a way of concealing deficits caused by tax cuts for “top-earners” and corporate tax credits. In this sense, Walker’s most recent cuts are no different. The cuts to the UW system, along with parallel moves to slash funding to public radio, K through 12, and the Department of Natural Resources, are designed to account for a $541 million deficit caused by his last term’s corporate tax cuts.

This strategy has worked in most cases. However, it has had unforeseen political consequences. Tuition for a four year public education has skyrocketed in the last three decades, increasing over 1,120%.

The astronomical tuition state-run universities now charge, coupled with declining wages, means that graduating students have had fewer opportunities to pay down the massive debt incurred to cover the cost of their education. And this just accounts for those students with the financial standing and the willingness to face a life as debt-slaves. High tuition also makes college less accessible to working-class students, with disproportionate effects on people of color and undocumented immigrants.

The struggling college student, indebted and underemployed, has thus become the face of the “crisis” of American public higher education. But despite their undeniable role in forcing students into this situation, lawmakers have managed to use the student’s plight to their advantage.

It is undeniable that funding cuts, alongside the steady swelling of administerial overhead and the explosion of expensive “student life” services, account for rising tuition. However, lawmakers have managed to divert attention away from these causes.

In response to rising tuition, the bipartisan battle cry in state-houses across the country has been that universities have to “trim the fat” from their budgets so that college can again be accessible to working class students. In particular, they have focused on faculty salaries and workloads.  In this sense, as in many others, Wisconsin has been no exception.

While claiming that he will leave the details of these budget reductions to the UW system leadership, Scott Walker has made no secret of what “fat” he would like to see “trimmed.” When asked in a radio interview how the system should absorb his proposed cuts, Walker glibly remarked that faculty should simply “teach more classes.”

The Myth of the Professoriate

Overtures like these reflect the growing popular sentiment that academic laborers are overpaid and underworked. This sentiment has been crafted by rightwing ideologues, who carefully select examples of the highest-paid professoriate and claim that they represent general university working conditions.

Here in Wisconsin, radio talk-host Charlie Sykes touted the $100,000-plus salaries of a few tenured professors, coupled with the seemingly light teaching loads of one or two classes a semester, as evidence that public education is a bastion of decadence and excess.

Thanks to the efforts of Sykes and his contemporaries, the “myth of the professor” is deeply ingrained in the contemporary political consciousness. In fact, commentators seem to agree that Walker’s “public authority” plan is a strategic gesture toward his presidential run. The resentment it expresses against academic labor clearly responds to a popular perception of the professoriate’s worth.

The problem with this perception, however, is that it conceals disturbing realities in regard to working conditions in public higher education. Within both the academic and nonacademic spheres of university labor, historic defunding has been detrimental to working conditions.

Many state universities have contracted non-academic labor like custodial staff and food services out to private companies, resulting in massive layoffs, decreased wages and the loss of pensions and benefits for workers. On the academic side, funding cuts have encouraged the explosion of “adjunct” positions. Underpaid, overworked and denied benefits and job security beyond a single semester, adjuncts are now the face of academic labor.

Originally introduced as a means of allowing students in Engineering and Business the opportunity to benefit from the experience of practitioners in their field, adjunct positions now account for at least 60% of teaching appointments.

Most of these positions are filled by academics who trained for research and teaching positions that no longer exist, and who are now forced to pay down their student loan debt and provide for their families on $25 thousand a year. Behind the “myth of the professor” lies the reality of exploited staff and adjuncts.

It’s a Labor Issue

For the sake of these workers and the students they serve, the “crisis” in state-run higher education must be recast — as a labor issue, first and foremost.

This is not to say that we should abandon students in their struggle. However, as the image of the debt-ridden college student has captured the public’s imagination, lawmakers, along with the industrialists and financiers they represent, have twisted it to serve their own interests. By pitting these students against the mythical professoriate, they have managed to justify even more funding cuts to state-run universities.

Effectively addressing this deception means replacing the myth of the professor with the reality of exploited academic workers. Making the realities behind academic labor clearer will allow defenders of state-run higher ed to focus the public’s attention away from tenured professoriate.

A minority in most university systems, the salaries of senior faculty, as generous as they may be, cannot possibly account for the growing cost of a college degree. Without the “myth of the professor,” the public will look toward the more salient causes for high tuition, bloated university administrations and funding cuts for the sake of wealthy taxpayers.

While greater attention on the plight of pensionless staff, impoverished adjuncts and unemployed PhDs would hopefully advance the struggle for better academic working conditions, a labor-based approach to thinking about state-run higher ed could also help students as well.

To lower tuition, Republicans have done the only thing they know, slash budgets and impose austerity measures. The centrists in the Democratic party have hardly done better, scheming utopian consumer-based solutions to the high cost of education, like MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) or other online degree plans.

Lawmakers in both parties seem convinced that academics need to “work harder,” and their combined political efforts have increased class sizes and teaching loads, while lowering pay and benefits for those who teach them.

Exposing the realities of adjunct labor instructors having to split their time between 150-plus students on two or three different campuses, for poverty wages, reveals a crucial truth: There are no other means for lowering tuition and preserving the quality of state-run universities besides increased state funding.

Within the past decade, academic laborers have united to make their working conditions public. SEIU’s “Adjunct Action” initiative has worked to organize contingent faculty while the National Adjunct Project has fought to make their situation more visible.

Graduate assistant locals at the Univer­sity of Illinois Chicago, UT Houston, UW Madison and here in Milwaukee, just to name a few, have organized extensive anti-austerity protests while groups like the MLA Sub-Conference have worked to foster greater discussion on how to unite students, faculty and staff in the struggle to make university working-conditions more equitable.

Academic workers have been slow to respond to these efforts, mostly because the professional identities we build around ourselves often keep us from seeing what we do as labor. Yet as much as we can sympathize with professor Grusin’s distress — none of us “signed up for this” either — we must face our situation, and the only way out of it is to see ourselves as embattled workers who are a part of the greater labor struggle.

May/June 2015, ATC 176