Scott Walker and Higher Education in the Media

The media and the death of the "Wisconsin Idea."
By Martin Kich

In winter and spring 2014, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker launched a multifaceted attack on higher education in his state.

Walker challenged the “Wisconsin Idea,” a statement on the mission of the state’s postsecondary institutions that has not only long defined their purpose but has also made the state’s system of higher education a model for others across the nation. As codified in state law, the mission of Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities has been to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society.” Moreover, “inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition.” “Basic to every purpose of the system,” the law states, “is the search for truth.”

The Wisconsin Idea has long stood as a succinct expression of what is meant by a liberal or classical education. In promoting a much more utilitarian view of the primary purpose of higher education, Walker proposed eliminating the words knowledge, truth, and public service from language in the state code and inserting language that emphasizes a commitment to tailoring curricula to meet workforce needs of corporate enterprises. This shift in emphasis would mean that public higher education would be regarded less as a public good and more as a commodity.

Walker also proposed eliminating the language in the state code that protected tenure and shared governance, and he proposed reducing state support for higher education by $300 million. He described tenure and shared governance as impediments to needed flexibility in adjusting to the dramatic reduction in state support. Worse, he proposed a two-year tuition freeze that would ensure that attacks on tenure and shared governance would be unavoidable. In exchange for austerity, he proposed a gradual increase in institutional autonomy, eventually amounting to a complete privatization of the state’s system of public higher education.

This set of proposals was driven by political, rather than fiscal, considerations. Walker and his allies in the Wisconsin legislature were advancing these proposals while most other states were increasing support for public colleges and universities and attempting to restore support for public colleges and universities that had been cut during the Great Recession that began in 2007.

Walker was clearly preparing to enter the campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination; these new attacks on higher education represented an extension of his earlier attacks on public- and private-sector unions and collective bargaining rights. Under his proposal, all faculty would be reduced to the condition of contingent employment, and public education, like other public institutions, would move into alignment with the corporate model being promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other far-right policy groups. These changes would be most immediately apparent at the state’s regional universities, where resources are more constrained—though the faculty at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison would have no added protections.

National Coverage

In “Governors Trim Spending on Higher Education,” an April 5, 2015, article published by Stateline news service, Elaine S. Povich provides a succinct overview of the reductions in support for public higher education proposed in spring 2015 by the governors of five states, all but one of whom were conservative Republicans:

Republican governors in Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin and Connecticut’s Democratic governor have proposed higher education cuts for the coming fiscal year. Higher education spending traditionally is a juicy target for budget cutters because schools can make up the lost revenue by raising tuition.

But students and their families already are being squeezed by steadily rising college costs. . . . Democratic Gov. Daniel Malloy of Connecticut has suggested a tuition hike to compensate for the cuts, but the Republican governors are urging the schools in their states to find the necessary savings by trimming bureaucracy and consolidating campuses.

University officials argue that past budget cuts have pushed them to the breaking point, forcing them, for example, to rely heavily on adjunct professors and teaching assistants instead of full professors. . . .

Some critics have urged the Republican governors to roll back recent tax cuts to spare the colleges and universities. But so far the governors have balked, arguing that lower taxes have helped working families and attracted businesses.

Povich uses this framework to focus on Governor Bobby Jindal’s exacerbation of the budgetary problems in Louisiana, but she does make the following points about Walker’s proposals in Wisconsin: “Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker . . . , who has cut state income and property taxes by $541 million during his tenure, has proposed cutting $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system. . . . The cut would be exacerbated by the fact that there is a tuition freeze in place.” Although she presents a straightforward catalog of facts, Povich highlights, through juxtaposition of selected statistics, the dubious need and rationale for the sort of draconian cuts that Walker was proposing.

Writing for the August 14, 2015, edition of the Washington Post under the headline “As Wisconsin Governor, Walker Has Had [a] Mixed Record on Higher Education,” Danielle Douglas-Gabriel presents a great deal of hard data suggesting that Walker’s proposals have been destructive: that they have disrupted daily operations as well as the longer-term planning of the state’s universities and colleges, that they have shifted more of the cost burden from the state to the individual students, and that they have reduced access to higher education. Douglas-Gabriel points out that both the percentage of students graduating with debt and the average amount of debt that they are carrying have escalated despite Walker’s efforts to impose caps on tuition increases and even tuition freezes. She notes that although the total funding of state grants to students has increased, significantly fewer students are receiving those grants. In what is perhaps the most telling detail in the article, she writes that Walker himself has noted that he has helped minimize cost increases to in-state undergraduate students by allowing institutions to raise tuition without any state-imposed limits for out-of-state and international students and for all graduate students. That is what Walker means when he asserts that he has a “more nuanced record on higher education” than his critics have asserted.

There is no ambiguity in the point of view of the comparable article written by Julie Bosman for the February 16, 2015, edition of the New York Times. Bosman’s article is titled “2016 Ambitions Seen in Bid for Wisconsin Cuts,” and it opens on a stirring note:

Atop a steep hill on the University of Wisconsin campus is a granite boulder affixed with a bronze plaque honoring the university system’s lofty mission: to benefit the entire state by promoting public service and a search for truth.

Summed up in one phrase—“the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state”—the mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea, has been cherished by educators and graduates for a century. So when Gov. Scott Walker, a second-term Republican, presented a budget this month proposing to delete some of its most soaring passages, as well as to sharply cut state aid to the system, he ignited a furious backlash that crossed party and regional lines.

In illustrating that backlash, Bosman includes a pointed statement by the president of the student senate at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls—in effect, deflecting any assertions that the criticism of Walker was coming largely from professors and college administrators.

Bosman then quotes Walker’s facile attempt to recast the controversy as the result of an error in communication and, without directly calling him duplicitous, immediately identifies the political calculations that are driving these proposals: “Mr. Walker hastily backtracked, attributing the proposed changes—which included inserting a call ‘to meet the state’s work-force needs’—to a ‘drafting error’ by aides. But to many Wisconsinites, it appeared that this was no mistake, and that the governor, who was re-elected in November, was intentionally sending a pugnacious message to an audience beyond the boundaries of his state: the conservative caucus voters of neighboring Iowa, the first stop in the presidential sweepstakes.” Without explicitly expressing judgment, Bosman highlights the incongruity in the justifications offered by Walker for the reductions in state aid to higher education: first, that critics are greatly exaggerating the size and impact of the reductions, and, second, that the reductions would give the institutions much greater fiscal autonomy. Clearly, both cannot be true. Bosman quotes a Republican history professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who suggests that Walker’s proposals will “absolutely savage the infrastructure and quality of teaching and research to this university.” The professor then adds, “What would be a shame for us in Wisconsin is if Scott leaves a wake of damage here on his way to the presidency.” It is worth emphasizing that he refers to the governor by his first name and with affection; nonetheless, he asserts that Walker is putting his personal political ambitions ahead of the public interest of his state.

More important than such judicious selection and use of detail is Bosman’s illustration of the impact of the reductions in state funding on the professional lives of several individual faculty members at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus and on the university’s ability to continue to attract and to keep top faculty. She undercuts the argument that the universities have accumulated considerable cash reserves on which they can draw if they don’t wish to initiate the fiscal measures necessary to accommodate the reductions in state support, pointing out that such reserves simply do not exist at many of the regional campuses and that the reserves have never been intended to cover politically driven reductions.

Indeed, the most memorable detail in Bosman’s article is a statement made by a clearly partisan government worker in Madison: “Walker doesn’t value the university. He has disdain for anything intellectual. He doesn’t care if the populace is educated.” That statement is so straightforward that it would be difficult to counter with the usual talking points. It reminds the reader that Walker was a college dropout, but it is much more than a snide reference to someone who is the governor of a dynamic state and who had serious presidential ambitions. It could force many who would prefer to rely on the usual talking points to recognize that, in defending Walker’s disdain for education, they are revealing their own.

Writing for the September 2, 2015, Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Kelderman explores “Where Scott Walker Got His Utilitarian View of Higher Education—and Why It Matters.” Kelderman’s article opens by linking Walker’s attitudes toward higher education directly to his truncated university education: “In the spring of 1990, Scott Walker, then a senior at Marquette University, decided to leave college before finishing his degree. A job in finance had opened up at the American Red Cross in Milwaukee, and Mr. Walker . . . leapt at the opportunity. ‘Certainly, I wanted an education for more than a job,’ he has since said, ‘but my primary purpose was to get a job.’ It’s impossible not to consider that statement when regarding the governor’s recent gambits in higher-education policy.” Most of Kelderman’s article focuses on Walker’s far-right ideology. He notes that Walker’s presidential ambitions have almost certainly influenced the timing of his attacks on higher education, and he observes that, although Walker has been one of the strongest proponents of a utilitarian view of higher education among the candidates for the GOP nomination, his views are broadly shared among those candidates. Kelderman quotes Peter A. Lawler, described as a “conservative scholar” at Berry College, “who says the governor’s treatment of higher education as a career-preparation service is a bipartisan problem, based on the exaggerated ideas that colleges are inefficient and that the liberal arts are not valuable on the job market.” Lawler notes that the Department of Education is also attacking the “personal element of education.”

Kelderman suggests that Walker’s actions and strategies have been modeled closely on those of the political figure he has openly idolized, Ronald Reagan, juxtaposing illustrative statements by both men: “In 1967, Reagan, who was then governor of California, rationalized budget cuts in higher education by saying that taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing ‘intellectual curiosity.’ Governor Walker has suggested that ‘maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.’” Kelderman quotes Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, who cites Walker’s remarks “about faculty members’ not working hard enough as a familiar trope to garner support from conservatives”: “I think he’s interested in higher education from an ideological aspect: cutting tenure, making life miserable for liberals in Madison.”

Kelderman also tackles the paradox that Walker’s recurring tactic has been to catch his political opponents by surprise, even though the positions that he has adopted have been articulated publicly and delineated quite thoroughly by conservative think tanks in Wisconsin. He emphasizes that all of Walker’s tactics seem designed to increase polarization, to present all issues as make-or-break, either-or choices facing the state’s political class and voters. Kelderman notes that Walker has benefited from the fact that he has run for election and reelection in off-year cycles, when voter turnout has been lighter than in presidential elections years.

He reports that the GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature has eased the reductions in state support for higher education to about $250 million and has avoided any major, direct revision of the Wisconsin Idea—choosing to undermine it by eliminating legal protections for tenure and shared governance.

Most significantly, Kelderman highlights the fact that, although Walker’s proposals to privatize public higher education have been ideologically framed and widely described as providing greater autonomy to colleges and universities, they actually serve a different purpose. Kelderman quotes Noel Radomski, the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who points out that “Walker’s proposals weren’t meant to privatize the system” but rather “were intended to gain more control of the system through the Board of Regents, which the governor appoints, and a cooperative system president.”

The completely corporatized university, as envisioned by Walker and other “reformers,” is not in any sense an autonomous or self-governing institution but a subsidiary of the combined corporate interests of a state. Of course, since all of the agenda at the state level will have been shaped by national groups such as ALEC that advocate policies advancing the special interests of certain corporate elites, there is no actual autonomy at the state level either. This is oligarchy posing as populism, or a corporate manipulation of populism for the sake of very narrow special interests.

Kelderman’s perspective on what has been occurring in Wisconsin seems to have evolved quickly. In “Why No Autonomy Means All Pain, No Gain for Wisconsin’s University System,” an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education published several months earlier, on May 7, Kelderman opens with the following blunt assertion: “The plan to give the University of Wisconsin System broad autonomy from state regulations is dead.” Several short paragraphs later, he adds, “The situation represents a political setback for Gov. Scott Walker, a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination, who proposed the plan to cut the university loose as a ‘public authority’ as part of his recommended budget.” Those assertions are somewhat balanced by quotations from Walker critics. Daniel J. Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is quoted as saying, “That’s the crazy thing, how legislators expect to both cut state funding and cap revenues,’” and Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, comments, “It would have been far worse to take the cuts and then been under the thumb of a Walker-controlled Board of Regents.” But the earlier article is much less focused on the ideological rigidity behind the corporate mantra of enhancing institutional flexibility.

State Coverage

There was no ambiguity in what the editors of the Madison Capital Times wrote in an editorial published on February 4, 2015. The editorial opens by putting Walker’s proposals in historical perspective:

A great state needs a great state university—as a source of educational opportunity, vital research and economic development. The founders of Wisconsin understood this, making provision in the first state constitution “for the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of state government.” . . .

No one who gets Wisconsin has ever questioned the need for this state to remain committed to maintaining that support.

Unfortunately, Gov. Scott Walker does not get Wisconsin. Walker’s shortsighted policies have steered the state into deep fiscal trouble. By attacking public employees, public services and public education, and by mangling economic development programs, Walker has slowed growth to such an extent that Wisconsin now trails neighboring states in key measures of economic stability.

The editors follow by explaining that the cuts to state support for the university would undermine its national standing. Since the research done at the university has been a major economic driver for the state, the reductions in state support for higher education will only exacerbate the state’s lagging economic performance. The editors point out that whatever the ramifications of the reductions in state support are for the Madison campus, they are likely to be greatly magnified for the regional campuses. They argue that the statewide economic impact of the proposed cuts should be the basis for nonpartisan opposition to Walker’s proposals in the legislature.

The conclusion of the editorial is powerful and cleverly expressed, since the audience is not just the legislators themselves but the voters whose interests they are supposed to represent: “Supporting higher education is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It is not a liberal or conservative issue. It is an essential issue for Wisconsin’s future. Scott Walker may be more interested in his own political future than Wisconsin at this point, but legislators need to focus on this state and its needs—not the image that a disengaged governor wants to maintain as he bids for the Republican caucus and primary voters who cheer for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes and the University of New Hampshire Wildcats.” Unfortunately, the legislature subsequently reduced Walker’s proposed cuts in state funding for higher education only from $300 million to $250 million and essentially gutted the principles expressed in the Wisconsin Idea by eliminating the protections in the code relating to tenure and shared governance.

Presidential Politics

Meanwhile, Walker’s presidential campaign floundered. When he tried to articulate his political principles, the explanations came across as juvenile or rigidly ideological. Walker the presidential frontrunner was a figment of his own and his billionaire backers’ imaginations.

Having similarly wrecked Louisiana’s economy, state budget, and system of higher education, Bobby Jindal remained in the presidential race for as long as he did largely because he was term-limited and there was nowhere else for him to go politically. Walker still has several more years to serve as governor, and in the week immediately following his withdrawal from the presidential race, he signaled that he would next like to “reform” the state’s public pension system—despite the fact that, as Kelly Wilz documented in a September 24, 2015, post on the Academe Blog, the state has the “most solvent public pension system in the country.”

It is clear that the problem has not just been Walker’s presidential ambitions but much more fundamental elements of the ideology within which he has framed his political ambition—an ideology that many of those in the Wisconsin legislature clearly share. Personifying the problems created by that ideology in the figure of Scott Walker has made it more difficult to convince Wisconsin voters that their own futures, rather than simply Walker’s political future, are at stake.

Now that Walker has flopped dramatically as a national candidate, it is possible that his being a figurehead promoted and largely funded by, and representing, the mostly out-of-state special interests associated with ALEC may become a major liability for him.

Martin Kich is professor of English at Wright State University’s Lake Campus. He is the president of the Wright State chapter of AAUP, the vice president of the Ohio AAUP conference, and a member of the executive committee of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress. His e-mail address is [email protected].