The UW System could face a budget cut resulting in $300 million in lost revenue – although the number is still uncertain – as well as sweeping changes that might imperil the engrained traditions of shared governance and tenure.
In addition, there are moves to make the UW a “public authority” – more autonomous from state government’s rules and possibly fiscally. Several years ago, proposals were floated to make UW-Madison a public authority – essentially split it off from the System – but the current proposal would likely apply to the entire UW System, officials said.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges the campus ever faced,” said UWM Chancellor Mark Mone on Friday.
Faculty and staff at a Friday forum on the UW-Milwaukee campus labeled the possible budget cuts and other changes “disastrous,” especially coming in the wake of previous years’ cuts, and said that Gov. Scott Walker was about to sacrifice the UW for his presidential campaign. They urged the UW administration to take a more proactive, aggressive approach toward alerting the public about the situation and said there has been too much secrecy surrounding the issue.
Distinguished Professor Mark Schwartz, chair of the powerful University Committee at UWM, told Media Milwaukee after the forum that the potential budget cut being discussed is of “significant magnitude” and could result in $300 million in lost revenue to the UW System.
“The potential number discussed is a $150 million cut for the entire UW-System which would continue for both years of the biennium. So one way this could happen (if it was all ‘front loaded’) is that in the first year there would be a cut to the base budget of $150 million, and then no further base cut in the second year (but no restoration either), so the total amount of lost revenue would be $300 million over the two years.”
Among the changes that could also occur: Removing shared governance and tenure from state law.
“There are large forces at work here, and the political elements that are underway are moving very, very rapidly,” said Mone. “I would describe us as a tail on the dog as opposed to really being at the table.”
UWM’s budget historically accounts for 13 percent of the UW System’s yearly budget, Mone said at the forum arranged for staff on the UWM campus to alert them to the potential changes.
The numbers of the potential budget cuts have filtered through the ranks of faculty and staff who are on key committees. At the forum Friday, it became clear that UWM could stand to lose roughly at least $20 million in state funding just the first year alone because of the 13 percent figure. The numbers are far from certain; in fact, administration has grappled with unclear projections and numbers that seem to change frequently.
Walker unveils the new state budget on Feb. 3.
The chancellor, along with other UWM administrators, said the System is bracing for sweeping changes that could fundamentally alter how the university system is organized. Under consideration: Making the UW System a public authority and eliminating shared governance and tenure from state law. Instead, those traditions would become rules that could be changed by the Board of Regents, a group increasingly full of Walker appointees. Chapter 36 governing the system would be replaced by Chapter 37 and could include tuition controls.
According to the UW System, shared governance, “gives representation to academic staff, classified staff, faculty and students, who all take part in making significant decisions concerning the operation of the university.” The principles are found in policy and also state statutes.
“The public authority that’s being contemplated will be for the whole system,” said Vice Chancellor Robin Van Harpen. “What that means is really up to how it’s defined in the statute.”
Those in attendance were not happy and said the alterations were coming as a surprise and could result in tuition hikes or major changes in staffing and programs. Repeatedly, speakers from the audience said they believed that Walker’s motivations were his presidential aspirations.
“We are facing what one dean has called ‘tectonic changes,’” said Patrice Petro. Petro was among a chorus of other instructors comparing the content of these proposed budget cuts and legislation to the 2011 Act 10 bill. “This is huge for our institutions.”
Sarah Tully, the executive director for UWM’s Center for International Education, spoke about her concern for the drastically weakening effect these systemic cuts pose to Wisconsin universities. She believes these changes will seriously hinder Wisconsin students’ access to quality higher education.
Chancellor Mone announced that he will be forming a Budget Reduction task force to respond to the proposed cuts. He iterated that he wanted to continue an open dialogue with the staff and urged everyone to work collectively on solutions, saying, “We are poised to rise together.”
Several members of the UWM staff voiced their concern with what they said was the state’s unwillingness to involve chancellors like Mone more deeply in the current discussion.
“Compared to our previous administration in the UW System, I have more confidence than I ever had in terms of them being at that table,” said Mone. “But there are very large forces here that we’re trying to counter.”
Mone spoke of unanimous support at an August Board of Regents meeting for a $95 million funding boost to the UW System. Since then, he and other chancellors have been operating under this assumption.
“Only in the last month and a half have we started to see things change – of course, post-election,” said Mone.
Members of the UWM faculty present at the meeting were calling for a proactive approach to the cuts and changes currently being discussed in Madison.
“I don’t think it’s useful at all for us to be quiet and wait until the governor gives his pronouncement,” said one.
The consensus prior to this meeting has been to keep quiet about the issues currently being discussed.
“There was a meeting I was at in Madison about two weeks ago where all the chancellors were asked and told ‘you don’t want to make the news, you don’t want to be the news,’” said Mone.
“We’ve been told that if we speak up we’ll be punished,” said Connie Jo, a UWM staff member of 44 years.
Several UWM staff members in attendance spoke about their concerns that the UW System is being sacrificed to plug holes in Wisconsin’s projected structural deficit of roughly $2 billion. Some were concerned that Walker’s possible bid for presidency was affecting his proposed decision to make major cuts to the UW System.
“He’s dealing with a $2 billion deficit that cannot be on his record when he runs, and therefore something has to be sacrificed, and it is going to be the UW System,” said Connie Jo. “If we think that is not a bottom line here, we’re fooling ourselves.”
She wanted the System to take its case to the public.
“We don’t have to give away 300 million more dollars,” said Jo. “We can dig our heels in and say ‘No.’”
Other staff members at the meeting began to voice concern over the university’s perceived poor communication with the public about details surrounding these issues. One instructor proposed a letter be sent to every parent of a child currently enrolled in a UW System institution, informing them what these cuts and changes would mean for costs and the quality of education that could be provided. One speaker said that the possible budget cuts are the result of Walker’s tax cuts shortchanging the state on revenue.
The call for a proactive response to the proposed budget cuts was unanimous among the speakers at the meeting. They wish to inform the public with data and details, rather than construct a counter narrative to the proposals being released in early February.
“We need to get down into the weeds and into the details,” said Margot Anderson, a Professor of History at UWM.
“This will make a huge impact on our state,” said Professor Joe Austin. “We have to think in bigger terms than just us.”
“You can hear it in my voice; I’m from the south,” said Austin. “I’ve been running from Arkansas my whole life. We’re on the verge of becoming Arkansas. We really have to appeal to the citizens; I just don’t think people in Wisconsin want to live in Arkansas!”