Democrats have spent recent weeks drawing attention to budget cuts that have led to reduced services and layoffs on University of Wisconsin System campuses.
Republicans have countered by touting a four-year freeze on UW tuition and new tenure rules that make it easier to fire professors, who Gov. Scott Walker has repeatedly said enjoyed protections that gave them a “job for life.”
As Democrats look to pick up seats in the Legislature and Republicans try to keep control of the Senate and Assembly, experts say the issues surrounding the UW System could be among the hottest topics on the campaign trail in some districts.
Several months before Election Day, UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden says, politicians on the right and left are already making clear how they will look to argue those issues: Democrats by criticizing Republican-led budget cuts that they argue hurt the state’s public universities and its economy, and the GOP by saying they’ve reformed the UW System to make it more efficient and affordable for Wisconsin families.
“The parties have really drawn lines when it comes to higher (education),” Burden said.
Each is staking out positions that could have support among a broad base of voters, Burden said, and while Walker’s name won’t be on the ballot this November, his record will very much color races for the Legislature.
“Education is going to be a key contrast issue in this election,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.
Walker declined an interview request but devoted his May 12 weekly radio address to the tuition freeze and new tenure policies.
Mike Mikalsen, a spokesman for Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said voters don’t want to undo the changes Republicans have made.
“You can’t just feed the beast by throwing more state tax dollars in and more tuition money,” he said. “You have to force (the UW System) to adopt reasonable reforms to get them on the right track.”
Dems lament cuts’ fallout
Democrats, who opposed the $250 million cut from the UW System’s funding in the 2015-17 state budget last summer, have renewed that criticism as more details have emerged about how those cuts are affecting colleges and universities.
UW institutions across the state have laid off employees, reduced advising services and cut the number of courses and class sections they offer, among a range of other cost-saving measures that officials say are hurting students and local economies.
After UW System leaders decided in April not to make time at a Board of Regents meeting to hear chancellors discuss the impact of the cuts on their campuses, Democrats in the Legislature called for public hearings to draw further attention to the issue.
They have also emphasized UW’s role in spurring businesses, and last week highlighted a report from the Wisconsin Technology Council that said further cuts to higher education would hurt the state’s economy.
Shilling said Democrats plan to put a major emphasis on the budget cuts, along with legislation that would allow borrowers to refinance their student loan debt, as they campaign this fall.
“We want to restore our state’s investment in higher education and make student loan debt relief a top priority,” said Shilling, who is facing a strong re-election challenge.
Katherine Cramer, a UW-Madison professor who has studied political attitudes in rural Wisconsin, said voters in those areas often feel a disconnect from UW-Madison, which some view as a bastion of liberal elites. But many also see the benefit of UW campuses within their communities, or appreciate local UW Extension programs, she said.
“There’s a great deal of pride in those schools,” Cramer said, and Democrats could have success pointing out how budget cuts are affecting them.
Polls show many voters could agree with Democrats on the budget cuts.
Walker’s original proposal to cut $300 million from the UW System was widely unpopular, said Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin. Even after the cut was reduced to $250 million, 57.6 percent of voters said in a poll last August that the reduced funding would hurt UW.
GOP touts affordability
While the cuts are unpopular, Franklin noted voters — many of whom are concerned about college affordability — like the Republican-backed freeze on in-state tuition.
Just more than 75 percent of respondents supported the idea when it was introduced in 2013; two years later, voters were less likely to say the freeze was hurting UW compared to the budget cuts.
Walker notes the freeze leveled off years of tuition increases at UW schools, and he has hinted that he will consider extending it for another two years.
“We believe the focus should be on providing students with the best education possible, in a way that makes college accessible and affordable,” Walker said in his May 12 radio address.
Walker has also ramped up his criticism of UW faculty members and their tenure protections.
Tenure’s proponents say the policies — which generally allow faculty to be laid off only in the event of misconduct or a financial emergency — are a necessary protection that allows professors to take on risky or potentially controversial research that can ultimately benefit society.
New policies approved by the Board of Regents earlier this spring, after Republican legislators stripped tenure protections from state law, give chancellors greater authority to close academic programs and fire professors. Faculty members across the UW System, prompted in part by the new tenure rules, have passed votes of no confidence in the Board of Regents and the System’s president, Ray Cross.
Walker derided the resolutions as a “fuss” by faculty members and slammed the concept of tenure, joining Republican critiques that tenure policies could be used to protect unproductive faculty members.
“Replacing jobs-for-life tenure with reasonable expectations for teaching just makes sense,” Walker said.
Marquette has not polled voters about tenure. But several experts said Walker’s “jobs for life” criticism could resonate with many people who don’t have nearly the same level of job security.
“It will be difficult to sell tenure when you apply it to what people do for jobs in their district,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist and former director of the state GOP.
Much like Walker advocated for Act 10, his signature 2011 law limiting public sector unions’ power, by criticizing the benefits those workers had, Cramer, the UW-Madison professor, said, he and Republican legislators are now deriding professors as well-paid and economically secure as they appeal to voters across Wisconsin.
“It’s a pretty powerful political move to say, ‘You’re hurting, I recognize that, and it’s the fault of these people who are getting more than their fair share at a time when you aren’t getting your fair share,’” Cramer said.
Parties’ bigger messages
The importance of higher education will vary in each legislative district, Burden, the UW-Madison political science professor, said, but he estimated those topics will be a factor in every race, and could be one of the “top five” issues in some areas.
Democrats will look to tie the UW cuts to a broader theme: That the policies of Walker and Republicans in the Legislature are hurting a valued institution and putting a drag on Wisconsin’s economy, Burden said.
Republicans, meanwhile, will point to the tuition freeze and tenure changes as ways they’re working to protect Wisconsin students and make UW a more responsible steward of taxpayer money.
The public traditionally favors Democrats on education, Burden said, but the fact that Republicans can also point to higher education positions that are popular with voters shows no one party is clearly winning the topic so farin this campaign.
“Both sides believe they have real strengths to their arguments,” Burden said.