Don't let Walker wreck UW

Evan Hurley and Michael Billeaux report from Madison on organizing to defend the University of Wisconsin system from Gov. Scott Walker's budget ax.

Protesting Walker's proposal for more cuts at UW Madison (Ken Fager)Protesting Walker's proposal for more cuts at UW Madison (Ken Fager)

ON FEBRUARY 14--four years to the day after students and workers first occupied the state Capitol building in the Wisconsin uprising against Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting "budget repair bill"--more than 500 people rallied in sub-zero temperatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) to oppose Walker's proposed $300 million cut in funding for the statewide UW system.

Ten days later, thousands of union members gathered a short distance from campus, at the Capitol building itself, to protest another face of Walker's reactionary agenda: an anti-labor "right-to-work" bill that has been put on the fast track for passage.

Together, Walker's proposed budget cuts and the "right-to-work-for-less" legislation show that the attack on working people in Wisconsin has intensified in the four years since the right-wing Republican--and now presidential hopeful--took office.

Walker is proposing dire cuts for the state's public university system, which consists of 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year college campuses, with 180,000 students and 39,000 faculty and staff. The $300 million that Walker wants to slash is equivalent to the entire operating budget of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, a four-year campus with just over 6,500 students enrolled per semester.

As usual with austerity agendas--like with the "budget repair bill" in 2011--Walker claiming the proposed cuts to public services are necessary because of a fiscal "crisis." But the crisis is totally fabricated.

Walker could virtually snap his fingers and close $315 million of the state's budget gap for the next two years simply by accepting increased Medicaid funding as part of Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. Walker's ideologically driven rejection of this money from the federal government already cost Wisconsinites $206 million during the last biennium.

Moreover, as Walker himself likes to brag, state tax revenues have dropped by some $2 billion and counting since he took office, due to tax breaks that have mainly gone to high-income earners, property owners and companies--thereby making the state's tax system all the more regressive. Walker's current budget proposes further property tax cuts.

At the same time, however, in 2012, spending on corrections surpassed spending on higher education in Wisconsin, a state which incarcerates Black men at double the national rate and is home to the worst racial disparities in incarceration in the country. If the state were less focused on sending people of color to jail, more money would be available to support a return to accessible, low-cost public higher education.

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THE RALLY on February 14 was co-sponsored by the UW-Madison graduate student union, the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA); United Faculty and Academic Staff; Faculty Organizing for Change; and the Young Gifted and Black (YGB) Coalition; among others.

Multiple speakers stressed how this new attack on the university is an expansion of Walker's assault on Wisconsin workers from four years ago, which has decimated public-sector unions and driven down wages for public-sector workers from 10 to 15 percent. Other speakers from the YGB and other groups mentioned the school-to-prison pipeline, and how the cuts and privatization of UW will make further tighten access for Black working-class students. The budget also includes cuts to the Department of Natural Resources, health care services for seniors and other public education services.

Along with the budget cuts is a proposal to convert the UW system into a "public authority," under which the Board of Regents--14 of 16 of whom are appointed by the governor to seven-year terms--would govern the System with vastly reduced state and public oversight. The Board of Regents would also gain the ability to close educational programs and studies of their choosing, and individual campuses could raise tuition without limits (a tuition freeze has been in effect in Wisconsin since 2012, and for several years prior to this, tuition increases were capped at 5.5 percent a year).

There are further implications to the "public authority" model. Chapter 36 of Wisconsin state statutes, which requires shared governance between administrators, faculty, staff and students, would be eliminated. If the proposal passes, the UW system would no longer come under statutory requirements to maintain certain programs for the recruitment of minority and disadvantaged students, and would no longer be required to provide faculty tenure or permit employees to accumulate sick leave.

The university would be able to issue its own bonds, a practice that has led elsewhere to university administrators using tuition hikes as collateral for loans. Walker's proposal also changes the manner in which the state funds the university, with reduced public support to be provided entirely by regressive sales tax revenue.

In short, the proposal would transform the public university system into a quasi-private entity and further concentrate managerial control in the top layers of system and campus administrations, at the expense of students, staff and faculty.

With campus Chancellors and the Board of Regents supporting the "public authority," opposition to Walker's proposal needs to address both the budget itself and the attitude of UW administrators who have been willing to take state budget cuts in order to get the "public authority" model.

Although many UW administrators criticize the budget cuts themselves as too large, the overall proposal gives them the authority to increase tuition, lay off faculty and staff, and renegotiate health care and vacation benefits for campus employees. Indeed, in e-mails obtained by the Madison press, UW system President Ray Cross explicitly referred to the cuts-public authority tradeoff as a "deal" with the Wisconsin legislature--and worried that the increased managerial powers were something the UW administration "might not get a shot at for another 20-30 years."

UW administrators have been fighting for these "flexibilities" for years--they are completely compatible with earlier administration proposals such as the New Badger Partnership, for example. As the TAA put it in an e-mail statement:

[F]rom the perspective of UW students and workers, $300 million is the price we are paying for the administration's pursuit of managerial flexibilities that make UW workers and students more vulnerable. From the perspective of UW students and workers, $300 million dollars is the price we pay for the administration's failure to combat the belief that the university can do more with less. In this way, we hold the Administration partially culpable for our current situation.

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AS USUAL, the top levels of the administration are the least likely to bear the burden of the cuts. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank made it clear that layoffs will be unavoidable, and she has actively sought to increase out-of-state tuition, as well the proportion of out-of-state students in the student body. She has also been clear on the "necessity" to increase tuition for the professional schools, such as the medical and law schools.

Blank and other UW system administrators are in a position to spearhead the demand for increased public support for higher education, but they instead have embraced the idea that some amount of cuts are inevitable--to date, none have advocated publicly for a "no cuts" position.

But the state of Wisconsin could easily increase funding for public education. Instead, it is losing money to tax breaks that disproportionately benefit corporations and the rich, and on politically motivated refusals of federal aid. While other Midwestern states such as Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana increased their funding for public education this year, UW's administrators opted to accept cuts.

But just as they did four years ago, students and workers are fighting back. This is only the first rally against Scott Walker's budget: the International Socialist Organization is hosting a panel discussion on the cuts this Thursday, February 26, at the Red Gym. We urge students, campus workers and community members to join us to plan a united resistance.