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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The destruction of public higher education

Chancellor Carolyn "Biddy" Martin announced her resignation as head of the University of Wisconsin in Madison to take the presidency of Amherst College in Massachusetts.  She is leaving a job at Wisconsin where she presides over 16,500 employees and 42,000 students for a job where she will preside over 203 full time faculty and 1,744 students.  She leaves a university that offers the entire range of undergraduate and graduate degrees for a college that offers the Bachelor of Arts in 36 fields of study.  Presumably, her annual salary, $437,000 plus benefits, will be equivalent.

Chancellor Martin's resignation from Wisconsin came suddenly, but not surprisingly.  In her efforts to find a way to continue the university's programs, she sought to make the institution independent from the state system of universities and the rules which governed the financing of the institution.  She and the new Governor Scott Walker agreed upon a plan to the  make the University independent, but the Board of Regents which run the University of Wisconsin system opposed the plan, contending that such a severance would be too disrupting and damaging for the other universities in the system.     A plan was approved by the Regents which gave the Madison campus more autonomy in meeting its challenges, but not a complete divorce.  

Being well acquainted with many people associated with the University of Wisconsin through collaborative work I have done with them, I sought some perspectives on Biddy Martin's decision to leave after she had contended she would like to end her administrative career at Wisconsin.  The common perception is that her association with Gov. Walker caused a wariness among faculty and Regents that damaged what had been a collegial relationship.  One professor said that the budget cuts and the need to respond could have been worked out with the university constituency, but the plan to cut the Madison campus loose came as part of the Governor's move to take away the bargaining rights of state employees and to turn government over to corporate interests, who are not friendly to college programs and interests.  My Wisconsin friend said he could see nothing but conflict and trouble with the intrusion of partisan politics into university business and he assumes Chancellor Martin saw the same kind of future.

The university has an annual budget of $2.7 billion.  Thirty-two percent of it comes from federal dollars, mostly for research funding.  The next largest source is gifts and grants from alumni and non-governmental research projects.  Next in line in size is program revenue, such as football tickets and dormitory space.  That is  followed by tuition.

State funding is least at 17.6 percent of the budget at $475.2 million, but cuts of $92 million are scheduled over the next two years. My friend from Madison says that Gov. Walker's belligerent and insolent handling of the state budget and the people who work for the state spread a huge stain over the state that tarnished Chancellor Martin because she appeared to participate in the political putsch he led.  By contrast are other governors who cut budgets but with the cooperation of their states' constituents.  Gov. Markell of Delaware was reported by the Washington Post to point out that he invited the labor unions to the negotiating table and surpassed his target budget cut by 30 percent.  Gov. Hickenlooper of Colorado engaged the state legislature across party lines and passed his new budget with 75 percent in both state legislative houses.  To faculty members, staff, and students,  Gov. Walker's display of needless aggression raised the alarm about a dictatorial intrusion by a political party and by corporate interests into the business of the university.  That  attack by Walker also raised the alarm among the other universities in the system and was the reason for strong resistance by the other universities and the Regents to the proposal to make Madison independent.  They saw Walker's belligerence as an attack on academic freedom and principles.  

Wisconsin is not alone in seeing its leadership step down amidst strife that has seems to have no resolution because of the belligerent and disrespectful attitudes displayed by in-power political factions against their missions and their constituencies.  In what is an unusual trend, University of Arizona, George Mason University, University of New Mexico and Rutgers have all had resignations from their top executives.  Like Martin, most of them seem headed for private, well-endowed institutions where partisan politics will not frustrate the decision-making and the administering of the institutions.  

Public education and the people who  try to deliver is under attack at all levels.  While many private schools in the primary and secondary levels are denominational or  shaped to meet particular political beliefs, the well-endowed universities use their independence to enforce academic freedom and the business of free inquiry, examination, and exchange of ideas.  

My friend of Wisconsin says what is taking place in his state is a reversal of the building of public universities that began with the passage of the Land Grant College Act in the heat of the Civil War.  He says a number of key colleagues at Madison have already taken jobs elsewhere, but he said others are questioning whether it is possible to make a commitment to the traditions and principles of higher education.

The significance of Wisconsin is in the intrusion and dictatorial control and denial of some established rights of those who do the state's work.  

When the rights to inquire and have a voice in one's work are taken away,  democracy itself is disappearing.  Not many of us can find an Amherst College to  retreat to. 

1 comment:

LK said...

Thanks for this post. I am truly frightened by the assault public education.

I suppose that I should do a bit a research to check on this assumption, but it seems that the Land Grant colleges may have been created in part to allow for a bit of unity that can come from discussion. (I may be committing Hegalian thought without a license with this idea.)

The retreat into private enclaves that re-enforce rather than challenge at both the secondary and university level threaten that sort of unity.

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