The facts about the New Badger Partnership

April 20, 2011

Fresh from his attack on public-sector unions, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a two-year budget that includes over $1 billion in cuts to education funding, including $250 million taken from higher education.

In response, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin has engaged in negotiations with Walker to implement what is known as the New Badger Partnership (NBP). In exchange for less state aid, UW-Madison would get greater autonomy under the NBP. Martin has also advocated that the university should break away from the rest of the statewide UW system. The agreement would establish a separate Board of Trustees for UW Madison, with the governor appointing 11 of its 21 members.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at UW-Madison and an expert on higher education who runs The Education Optimists blog, has been one of the NBP’s most vocal critics. She spoke to Sarah Lynne and Phil Gasper about the dangers of the New Badger Partnership and how it fits with the trend towards privatization and greater corporate control of education.

WHAT IS the New Badger Partnership?

WE’RE TOLD that the NBP is an effort to save this public institution financially.

We’ve have seen a decline in support from the state government over time, very consistent with how public institutions across the country have seen declines in state support. We’re concerned that we won’t have enough resources to provide the fine high-quality education that makes us a world-class, highly competitive, globally competitive research university.

The problems we’re facing can be attributed to, first of all, the way that the state treats us as a state agency like any other, rather than an educational institution, and therefore puts rules on us in terms of compensation, procurement, construction, tuition and other things.

The NBP is designed to provide new flexibilities around those key areas, which are described as getting us out from under government red tape and providing schools the opportunity to increase tuition as they see fit to maintain the flow of resources that they feel they need.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin
University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin

While the original NBP as described in public was limited to those flexibilities, the new NBP—or the Cadillac version, as Badger Advocates, a newly formed lobbying group, have described it—also includes a split from the UW system, so that we can be a public authority on our own.

Public authority is a Wisconsin term. We’re not sure what the equivalent is in other states, but I believe it means a private land-grant institution. There’s only one that I’m aware of in the United States, and that’s Cornell University in New York.

So that’s what we’re told the NBP is—an effort to save our financial situation and save us from ruin.

I think the NBP is actually an effort to insure that the state doesn’t have to continue to support public education going forward. I think it’s an effort to continue a movement towards privatization of public education broadly. I think it’s also a move to get control over the work of academia, because academia is seen as a threat to the conservative agenda, just as unions are seen as a threat.

These two purposes are paired. We’ve seen the efforts against the unions, and we’ve seen the threats to public education at the K-12 level. And I think, in this state anyway, this is the first hard move against public higher education.

WHAT IMPACT will the NBP have on students, faculty and staff?

I THINK the primary benefits of this policy will occur for UW Madison administrators, who have significant issues with the red tape they face from the government. They don’t pay tuition for their families to attend—maybe some have children who might come here, but their children are obviously better off than most people in the state.

The second set of people who will probably benefit, depending on who they are, are UW Madison faculty. They will benefit from, for example, having the state take away fewer of their research dollars, depending on the kind of research they do. This is true particularly if they’re not interested in having anyone be able to see what they’re doing in their research. This would enable them to take money from conservative foundations, which others might be upset to find out about. I think they’ll definitely benefit.

Current UW Madison students will probably benefit to some degree, especially those who will be given perks right away—and perks are being passed out.

There has been a movement in the last several years to a much more secretive process in the distribution of student segregated fees.

Fees are a huge part of the cost of this institution now. The distribution of the fees has not been the transparent process it once was. We have seen services expand a lot, although they expand primarily in one direction, towards an already advantaged group of students. For example, my understanding is that some of the Black sororities have seen a decline in support over recent times. On the other hand, student groups in favor of the NBP seem to be doing quite well at this moment.

I’m most concerned about the implications for the people who are not on the Madison campus. It’s hard to come up with any kind of silver lining for anybody else, despite the assurances that nobody will be left behind—that the transfer agreements from other Wisconsin institutions will be honored, for example. I think we’re going to see an increasing inequality in resources, prestige, power, etc.—just as we do in states that don’t have any centralization of their state university system.

I think that undergraduate education quality probably will suffer, because this is a business model of education. So for those in the business school, they’ll probably do fine—for those in engineering and hard sciences, they’ll probably do fine. For those in the humanities and social sciences and education, I really don’t think so—because I don’t think the Board of Trustees is going to see the value in that form of education.

SO WHY do so many people on campus support the NBP? What groups are promoting it?

I DON’T think so many people on campus support this policy. I’m not saying that there is widespread opposition to the policy either.

I think that what you have are a couple of important dynamics. One dynamic is fairly vocal support among administrators. How much of that support is driven by honest intellectual faith in this being the best possible route forward versus a fear that if we do nothing, we’re going to stagnate or drop off the face of the earth, versus a fear of retribution from the chancellor—that’s hard to tell.

I think there are people who truly believe this is the best way forward. They’ve been here for a long time, and they’re sick of the red tape. They’re understandably frustrated, and they really don’t want to see this place go down.

But I also think there are people—including people at very high levels, such as deans—who have major opposition to this policy, but who are saying nothing for fear of losing their positions. I know that for a fact.

I think among students, there’s a very small group of very vocal people who were initially skeptical of the policy. That seems to have been washed over by assurances from the chancellor and dean of students that this will be good for them.

Lots and lots of promises have been made to specific constituencies. I’ve been told all kinds of things including that I’ll get a research opportunity to study the effects of financial aid and affordability. I’ve been told that we’ll get better maternity benefits. These are the kinds of things they believe I care about. For anybody who has any sort of interest, that interest has been identified, and things have been promised.

There’s still a lot of apathy, and I interpret that partly as exhaustion. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these plans have been ramped up at a time where we’re all still recovering from the protests at the Capitol. Students are behind on their work. Faculty are behind on their work. The climate was really unsettled as a result, so I think people are loath to engage at that level again—which is unfortunate, because this is moving really, really fast.

So when people say they can’t find anyone opposed to the NBP, or that it’s the same five of us on Twitter all the time, I really think that’s also remarkable.

The chancellor will tell you how many opportunities she’s provided for people to learn as she has been around speaking about the NBP. I think her style of speaking to people reminds me of how I watch my friends speak to preschoolers. That’s completely acceptable on other campuses because people allow it to be, but this is shared governance, and that’s not what shared governance looks like.

So we’re in a race right now to July 1—we’re either going to do something about this, or we’re going to have a Board of Trustees.

WHAT WILL the effects be on the rest of the UW system and the technical college system in Wisconsin?

I THINK the plan is an attack on the UW system broadly.

One of the reasons that states have these comprehensive state university systems is that the systems are more effective advocates for higher education when the campuses are together. When you have multiple constituencies competing over scarce resources, they fight each other.

I think that’s the plan—for this to become a much less effective lobby for dollars. The UW system has dominated the quest for resources, relative to the technical college system, for example, so I think the effort to come for UW Madison is an effort for the UW system as a whole.

The first threat to the other campuses is that without a reasonably effective system office advocating on behalf of all of the schools in the legislature, the schools are going to do even worse. I know that there are already intense feelings of inequality—both among students on different campuses who felt they couldn’t get here or afford to be here, and the resource distribution among faculty across campuses, even in terms of rights and privileges.

You can argue that is all about the research dollars, but I don’t think that it is. I think at Madison, we’re given, arguably, the easiest-to-teach students—and at the same time, we’re given the most amount of resources with which to teach them, and then we complain about it. So I think we’re going to see a redistribution of the harder cases downward across the state.

WHAT DO you see as the alternative?

I’M CONCERNED that the framing of the issue right now is: If not this, then what?

One of the reasons I’m concerned about that is because we would have had an alternative plan if anyone else had been invited into this conversation. So the absence of a plan doesn’t indicate the absence of real alternatives. The absence of a plan is the result of a political strategy to make sure there were no alternatives.

I’ve been asked why we didn’t draft language for a different bill? That’s not my job—but we could have put policy proposals on the table, and the lawyers could have written that language instead of this.

If I sound irritated, it’s because I am. Wisconsin was given the opportunity to compete for significant funding to undertake real reforms. They did a pretty lousy job, frankly, in competing for those resources and making sure that Wisconsin was engaged in that conversation. That’s a problem.

To focus on UW Madison, and how it could respond to budget cuts it’s facing, I think that it should engage in some efficiency study. I don’t think the study needs to cost $3 million and be outsourced. But I think there are cost-effective ways of doing undergraduate education that we haven’t considered.

I think technology on this campus is underutilized. I think our faculty, quite frankly, are underutilized. I think there needs to be a set of conversations about coordination among institutions. I think we have to start thinking about mission in a much more significant way.

I think we need to really focus on who we’re trying to serve. I think right now, this is a system that is built primarily for administrators, and to some degree faculty. I don’t think this is a system built for students.

HOW DOES all this fit with national trends in higher education?

WHAT’S HAPPENING here is part and parcel of a massive movement. It’s happening all over the place, and it’s been going on for a couple of decades. There were changes in Virginia and Michigan—those are the two state that are most frequently highlighted. But we also know that Oregon is going through significant discussions along the same lines, and we know that Ohio is going through these discussions. And we have no reason to think it is going to stop there.

I don’t think this is just about this country. I think this is part of a global effort to make sure the interests of business are served by education, and that the interests of those who want to deregulate and defund are served. It’s mostly about not having to take care of people.

The two values that are missing in this discussion are empathy and sharing. When I listen to students argue in favor of proposals like the NBP, I feel badly for them that we haven’t done a better job as a society of raising them to think beyond themselves.

IS THIS a move away from public education towards privatization and greater corporate influence?

I THINK it’s an unraveling of all of the work that was done in the middle of the 20th century to put these things into place. And I do think it’s a reaction to the democratization of higher education—the degree to which education has become so much more diverse, the degree to which it has embraced constituencies that people are uncomfortable with. I think for example, the conversation about the DREAM Act and undocumented students in higher education is part and parcel of this as well.

This is the effort of elites to stay at the top. The best way to make sure poor people stay poor is to deny them a college education.

SO HOW do we fight back against this? What can people do?

RESISTING THIS does mean convincing Republicans to vote against it, because they’re the ones who have the majority. And that’s a problem, I think, because a lot of us are loathe to engage in that way.

But the one thing that we have is that regional politics will probably trump education politics. Regional politics means that everybody in the legislature except those who represent Madison have a school that isn’t UW Madison. From what I hear, this proposal isn’t going forward primarily because people in the rest of the state don’t like UW Madison. I think that the saddest part of the whole thing is that the way this can be stopped is because people don’t like us.

Further Reading

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