Friday, November 2, 2018

A Dark Winter at the University of Wisconsin (Michael Simkovic)

After crippling teachers unions in Wisconsin, the Republican controlled state government moved to slash education budgets and reduce educators' autonomy, both in K-12 education and in higher education.   Many experienced teachers have left the state or left education all together.  Student performance deteriorated.

Prominent professors have complained about changes to tenure standards which they say constitute the elimination of tenure or its substitution with "fake tenure."  A new law essentially forced the university to relinquish any semblance of academic standards with respect to approval of outside speakers.  It also subjects students, faculty, and administrators to potentially harsh discipline for disagreeing with political leaders or powerful donors. 

Massive budget cuts triggered efforts to eliminate academic programs, mainly in social sciences and the humanities.  Some programs have been given a stay of execution only through professors taking on such heavy teaching loads that academic research will grind to a halt.

Faculty are increasingly leaving for greener pastures, and the state--already suffering economically--risks continuing losses of educated professionals and the tax revenue and economic benefits they bring.

Wisconsin could be the canary in the coal mine as the politics of hostility to education go national.  As recent federal tax legislation shows, not even well-endowed private universities are immune from political pressure.

On the other hand, there is evidence of a political backlash in Wisconsin as voters increasingly support local property tax increases to fund investments in educaiton.  Political hostility to education may be limited to the extent that even voters focused on (largely trumped up) "cultural" issues will eventually reject disinvestment policies that damage the economy.


UPDATE Nov 4, 2018: Jason Yackee (Wisconsin) responded by email to the post above.  Professor Yackee views things in Wisconsin as better than they seem, at least on the Madison campus.  Yackee also argues that there was overcapacity in parts of the University of Wisconsin system and that budget cuts on some campuses serving smaller communities (or perhaps closures) make sense.  I have posted Profesor Yackee's email below, with his permission.  My skeptical reaction appears below Yackee's letter.


Jason Yackee (Wisconsin): Things in Wisconsin are not as bad as you think, at least at UW Madison

For whatever it is worth, I think that the analysis rests on an outdated appreciation of the mood and the facts, especially at UW-Madison. While we (at the University level) still face some challenges in terms of budget, and while the politics of the state (especially due to certain Republicans in the legislator) remain somewhat fraught on the issue of higher education, the situation is much better than it was several years ago. We have lost some high-profile faculty, but in many other cases the University has managed to retain faculty as well. And we continue to hire, and to do quite well in that regard. Madison is a very attractive place for young, talented, and ambitious faculty. Relations with the state are much better than they were under the prior Chancellor, and so, for example, while Governor Walker has (unfortunately in my view) promised to continue his short-sighted “undergraduate tuition freeze” for another four years, we have recently won the ability to admit larger numbers of out-of-state students, who are not subject to the tuition cap, a major victory. The ugly and angry debates about “eliminating tenure” (which were exaggerated in substance) have also subsided, and the new regime, at least to date, doesn’t seem all that different from what it was before. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The university system is a complicated multi-level bureaucracy and changing rules at the very top will naturally tend to have a limited effect as those changes filter down through the layers (and through interpretive rules and customs) that are difficult to change at the ground level. The University’s notorious institutional conservatism, which regularly frustrates faculty impatient with big ideas for new ways of doing business, demonstrates its value in times like the present. And on the issue of sanctioning disruptive students under the banner of “free speech”—that too has proven, to date, to be a big nothing-burger.

The situation is obviously very different at the other UW-system schools. But those schools are in such a different situation, and play such a different role, that comparing them to Madison is not appropriate. A big part of their problem—perhaps the major one—is that we have far too [many] schools in the System. For political reasons shutting a school down is impossible, but that means that we have excess capacity in the face of very unfavorable demographic trends. Marginal System schools, like Osh Kosh, Superior, and so on, have very limited ability to absorb natural drops in enrollment, and so chancellors at such schools have to take what look to be drastic steps to remain financially solvent. The blame for the situation does remain properly on the state’s politicians—but not necessarily because they haven’t provided enough funding, but because they don’t have the backbone to allow the Board of Regents to restructure the operations in a systematically rational way.


Simkovic: Many faculty at Wisconsin remain alarmed by recent developments and there is no good economic reason why the state needs to or should cut education funding

I agree with Professor Yackee that simultaneously cutting public funding and imposing price controls on tuition is an ill-conceived policy--and one that is unfortunately limited neither to Wisconsin nor to Republican leadership.  

While I appreciate Professor Yackee's optimism about Wisconsin, it is far from universal on campus.  Several faculty members and students have publicly (and recently) stated that they feel the need to self censor under the new regime because of the weakening of tenure and enhanced ability of political and business leaders to harshly punish protestors.  The AAUP has repeatedly criticized changes to governance at the University of Wisconsin over the last several years (see also here).  Such criticisms have come as recently as February of this year, including from faculty at the Madison and Milwaukee campuses.  

I also question the analysis of overcapacity in Wisconsin's higher education system.  Even areas like Osh Kosh have stable to growing populations.  For many students of limited means, having a campus within commuting distance of home and/or work can make the difference between being able to attend college and either not attending or having no choice but to enroll in a low quality online degree program.

Wisconsin's educational attainment as measured by the precent of the population with a bachelor's degree  is below several other midwestern states such as Minnesota and Illinois.  Measured by graduate degree attainment, Wisconsin trails those states as well as Michigan, Kansas, and Missouri.

Cuts to K-12 and higher education are not likely to help matters.  Public spending per college student in Wisconsin is already below levels in Alabama and Mississippi.  

There is room for improvement and for growth in education in Wisconsin with more public investment.  Moreover, Wisconsin can afford a higher level of public investment.  Since 2011, when Republicans came to power, State tax revenues were intentionally reduced by more than $8 billion, with a disproportionate share of the tax cuts flowing to the state's highest earners.  In Wisconsin, as in the rest of the country, those with higher levels of education earn more, pay more in taxes, and are less dependent on medicaid, disability, and unemployment insurance programs.

Cuts to education investment are driven by special interest politics, not sound economics.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Of Academic Interest, Weblogs | Permalink