David J. Vanness

David Vaness, an associate professor of population health sciences at UW-Madison, speaks during a meeting of faculty members on campus last year. 

The State Journal’s editorial last Sunday, “Ray Cross deserves confidence,” framed statewide votes of no confidence in University of Wisconsin System leadership as primarily a faculty response to weakened tenure. In doing so, the editorial board overlooked many substantive issues raised in the resolutions and unfairly encouraged readers to dismiss our concerns as self-interest.

Gov. Scott Walker clearly wants Wisconsin citizens to believe the no-confidence votes are about “jobs for life.” But the reality is that faculty, staff and students have been fighting for well over a year against a sustained, multi-pronged assault on our world-class university system and the Wisconsin Idea — the notion that the purpose of a strong system of publicly funded education is to improve the lives of people throughout the state.

Unfortunately, UW System President Cross and the Board of Regents have shown no stomach for publicly standing up for UW, failing, for example, to call out Gov. Walker’s recent false assertions (branded “pants on fire” by Politifact) about instructor-student ratios at UW-Milwaukee, among other misleading statements.

As defenders of the Wisconsin Idea, we are deeply concerned about increasing costs and decreasing access to UW. But let us be clear about their root cause: Over $1 billion in cumulative cuts to state support for UW since 2003 have increased tuition and other expenses, resulting in an explosion of student debt and putting public education further out of reach of the very public it is meant to serve.

We strongly support the goal of holding tuition constant, or even better, reducing it. But aggressively cutting state support while freezing tuition is no solution unless the real goal is to hollow out the University of Wisconsin.

With fewer instructional and support staff, students are already having difficulty finding seats in required classes or getting appointments with academic counselors, resulting in longer time to graduation. The impact of reduced UW services is being felt across the state.

For the past decade, faculty and staff have done “more with less” by obtaining more research grants and charitable gifts and by engaging in entrepreneurial activities to try to make up the shortfall. Now, it’s clear we will have to do less with less. The quality, value and prestige of a degree from UW are already suffering.

The “tools” offered by Gov. Walker and the Republican-led state legislature to manage the crisis they created were embraced by President Cross and the Board of Regents despite widespread faculty objections. New policies were crafted that “empower chancellors to discontinue programs” to reallocate resources to other programs deemed to be “higher priority.”

At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable approach. But the Regents specifically rejected proposals unanimously supported by faculty representatives that would have more meaningfully involved faculty in the process, ensuring that educational quality concerns remain paramount. The perverse and far-reaching effect is to take away primary responsibility for educational quality and for curricular priorities from the scholars and scientists who are the experts and who built the University of Wisconsin into the world-renowned institution that it is today and transfer it to the politically appointed Regents and to the chancellors who serve at the Regents’ pleasure.

In the original draft of what is now Act 55, Gov. Walker attempted to remove the Wisconsin Idea from the UW mission and to replace it with the shockingly narrow and ill-defined mandate to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” That attempt was resoundingly rebuffed by the public.

But now, nothing prevents the Regents from achieving in deed what Gov. Walker failed to do in word. The obvious temptation will be to reduce student access to offerings in fields that clash with legislators’ political and ideological priorities, costing students the opportunity to develop the broader knowledge, creativity and thinking skills necessary to adapt to an ever-changing world.

UW’s budgetary crisis was no accident — it was a political strategy. Making voters aware of the serious and long-lasting consequences of sustained budget cuts may be our last hope for preserving UW quality and affordability for Wisconsin citizens. That’s why we’re asking President Cross and the Regents to restore our confidence by changing course and joining with us in openly and passionately defending the Wisconsin Idea, before it’s too late.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Vanness, of Madison, is an associate professor of population health sciences in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and president of the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors.