10/11/2018

Governor’s race highlights higher education: Is it high-minded or high-profit?

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The Wisconsin gubernatorial race is heating up, and the topic on everyone’s mind is education. Tony Evers, a lifelong educator who is now state superintendent of public schools, is running against Gov. Scott Walker, one of the worst public education governors in the country.

tony Evers, Randi Weingarten, U WI Pt. Stevens

Against that backdrop, AFT President Randi Weingarten joined faculty union members and students at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to meet with Evers to discuss the devastation Walker has brought to the university system—and what might be done to restore it. At the Oct. 10 meeting, participants talked about the hundreds of millions of dollars Walker has gouged from the education budget and his attack on the Wisconsin Idea, the foundational principle behind higher education in the state. He recently tried to eliminate the document’s direction that universities “search for truth” and strive to “improve the human condition” and replace it with a demand that they “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

The move illustrates Walker’s relentless efforts to commercialize the state’s colleges and universities; Weingarten calls these efforts “an ideological choice to strip the search for truth from the system.”

Faculty around the table described the result of Walker’s approach: The campus is losing programs and people. Administrators there have proposed eliminating 13 humanities majors—including English, history and sociology. At the same time, they are launching more career-focused programs, such as aquaculture, captive wildlife, and ecosystem design and remediation. And Stevens Point recently announced it will be dropping as many as 70 employees, which administrators say is due to under-enrollment.

It’s no surprise fewer students are enrolling: Walker has raised tuition as he’s cut back state funding, and student financial aid has decreased precipitously. Many students just can’t afford to go to college.

Randi Weingarten with WI state rep and AFT-WI presidentEvers has promised to address these issues with increased funding for public schools, technical schools and the University of Wisconsin system, and a change in state law that would allow student loan borrowers to refinance their student debt at lower interest rates. And his meeting with members of the faculty-staff union indicates his respect for those who understand the higher education system best.

In contrast, Walker’s record includes weakening tenure by removing it from state law, and limiting the role faculty, staff and students have in university governance. He also cut off faculty voice when he attacked public sector unions, including faculty-staff unions at the universities: His 2011 so-called Budget Repair Bill limited collective bargaining and severely weakened public sector unions.

At a panel discussion following the Evers meeting, faculty leaders and Weingarten continued the conversation with state legislators Rep. Katrina Shankland and Sen. Patrick Testin. The Wisconsin Idea, they agreed, with its high regard for the liberal arts, academic knowledge and accessibility, is crucial to the university system’s success. Weingarten pointed out that the university can both serve the state and uphold higher learning: “Workforce development doesn’t mean eliminate traditional academics and courses.”

[Virginia Myers]