Wisconsin universities shaken by anti-academic policies

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It's hard to miss the rumble out in Wisconsin: The battle between labor and its union-bashing foes has been loud and long. But for faculty and staff of public colleges and universities, the Wisconsin story is even worse.

In addition to killing collective bargaining, targeting the union with right-to-work laws and crippling the state with trickle-down economics, Gov. Scott Walker has eviscerated the budget for state colleges and universities, weakened tenure and stripped shared governance from faculty. Many fear that top faculty will flee the state and threaten the reputation of one of the country's leading university systems.

UW-Milwaukee union members at a board of regents meetingFunds for higher education have been slashed by $250 million in Walker's biennial budget, making Wisconsin one of the lowest-spending states when it comes public colleges and universities. As a result, resources are stretched, and faculty and staff are leaving.

At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 158 positions have been identified for elimination. Bob Nowlan, an English professor and vice president of United Faculty and Academic Staff of UW-Eau Claire, says his department reduced academic staff by approximately half and lost six to eight faculty lines.

At UW-Green Bay, which anticipated a $4.6 million annual cut, administrators offered 158 staff members early separation packages; 29 senior employees left as a result.

"The budget cuts have clearly sapped the morale of faculty across the university system," says Jon Shelton, assistant professor of democracy and justice studies at Green Bay and the chair of the Green Bay local's organizing committee. "Faculty are already paid less than market salaries, and a lot of junior faculty are choosing to leave. I don't know one junior faculty right now who isn't at least looking for another job."

Two professors who teach geographic information systems are gone, leaving a gap for students whose majors require it. Staffs, too, have shrunk, and institutional knowledge has been greatly diminished. The main administrative assistant in Shelton's department—"a fantastic woman who knew how to do literally everything"—felt she had to accept the early retirement buyout because of the precariousness of the budget situation. His department and others are struggling to cover administrative shortfalls in the wake, and already overwhelmed department chairs are likely to pick up the slack.

Students are feeling the impact, as well. UW-Green Bay graduate Paul Ahrens was accepted to UW-Madison's master's program in public administration and urban planning, but because the school couldn't offer him funding, he is heading to Cornell instead. He sees a clear connection between budget cuts and his own experience; as a member of the student-led United for Education, he has been outspoken about the governor's plans for the university. Others are facing limited numbers of course sections, and worry they may not be able to enroll in the classes they need to graduate on time. They also anticipate getting less attention in class, as class sizes swell.

The state's flagship campus, UW-Madison, is concerned for its reputation, as top researchers turn away. It recently missed hiring two top-level medical faculty, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, because they were unsure of continued funding. One, from Harvard, would have headed the Carbone Cancer Center.

Watch your back
On top of the budget cuts, faculty are distraught over weakened tenure and restrictions on shared governance.

Arguing that hiring and firing flexibility could relieve budgetary pressure, Walker's budget allows tenure to be revoked for reasons beyond dire financial emergency and just cause. While individual institutions and the university system as a whole may be able to protect tenure, it is no longer protected under state statute.

Without state-protected tenure, controversial research—on subjects such as climate change—could be threatened if donors or others in power disagree with its conclusions. Publishing unpopular research could put an academic's job—or at the very least the integrity of the work—in jeopardy.

This "poses a direct threat to academic freedom," protests a coalition of 21 esteemed scholarly associations. The organizations, including the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, the American Sociological Association and the American Society of Comparative Law, call tenure the linchpin of independent, rigorous scholarship, and its degradation a threat to the university's stellar reputation.

AFT-Wisconsin faculty and academic staff unions are fighting back. At UW-Milwaukee, union members attended a board of regents meeting with duct tape over their mouths to symbolize the danger of these policies, and to pressure the regents to defend tenure. The image was widely publicized in state newspapers.

At UW-Green Bay, hundreds of faculty, staff and students signed a petition, and their chancellor responded with a memo declaring his support for shared governance. He's promised to promote tenure next. The local there has sponsored listening sessions, to ensure that faculty, staff and student voices remain a part of the conversation. Higher education members from locals across the state are holding a summit in September to plan and advance a statewide campaign.

"People have been demoralized, and everyone recognizes the new challenges, but it has galvanized a lot of people to become active in the union," says Shelton.

These advances are important, but the fight remains urgent. "By curbing professors' academic freedoms and by slashing the state's higher education budget, the governor is causing irreparable damage," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "If implemented, these attacks will compromise Wisconsin's ability to recruit and retain the best researchers and teachers, undermine state universities' capacity to provide student support services, and discourage inventive academic work."

[Virginia Myers/photo by Mike De Sisti, @2015 Journal Sentinel, Inc.]