Sen. Steve Nass (top) and Prof. Steven Deller.
State Sen. Steve Nass blasted a UW-Madison economics professor in a scathing email Monday afternoon, calling the academic's report on right-to-work legislation and economic performance "partisan, garbage research."
The email, sent to Senate and Assembly Republicans and UW System officials with the subject line "UW-Madison Professor Steven Deller Uses State Resources to Trash Right to Work," cites a two-page factsheet written by a Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics faculty member.
"Attached is yet another example of wasted resources at the UW-Madison/UW Extension to issue a trumped up report from a partisan academic against Right to Work," writes Nass, a Republican from Whitewater. "Hiding behind academic freedom to issue partisan, garbage research is what we have come to expect from some of the overworked and stressed faculty at UW-Madison."
The email continues: "I will certainly forward this email on to UW System President Ray Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, as just one suggestion of a faculty member with time to teach more courses. Or maybe not!"
Deller, who works with the UW Extension's Center for Community and Economic Development, says he wrote the report about a month ago with the intention of providing individuals with an overview of the controversial anti-union legislation.
"I tried to make it as objective as possible," says Deller.
The report summarizes the common arguments for and against right-to-work legislation, acknowledging that there is "little agreement within the literature that has attempted to empirically document the impact of [right-to-work] laws."
Using income, poverty and unemployment data from states with and without the anti-union legislation and comparing them using a statistical test to identify significant differences, Deller found that "right-to-work states tend to have lower manufacturing wages and overall income levels, higher poverty rates and lower education levels."
Nass, an outspoken UW System critic who chairs the Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform, took issue with Deller's findings, the way they were presented and released to the public, says his chief of staff, Mike Mikalsen.
"Steve is frustrated with what we see as a faculty member abusing their position within the UW System to issue, frankly, just pure garbage research," Mikalsen says. "This piece clearly takes a side or a position."
Mikalsen also questioned whether Deller, who has a doctorate in agricultural economics and a master's in economics, was even qualified to present findings on the topic of right-to-work.
Deller, however, cautions against lawmakers demonizing research whose results conflict with their political ideologies. He says the cooperation between UW System academics and government officials is a two-way street: Researchers shouldn't use the university as a "bully pulpit" to promote a political ideology, but lawmakers "shouldn't shoot the messenger."
"We try to provide information and ideas and let citizens make a decision," Deller says. "If we filtered everything that came out of the university based on whether or not it's going to pass through some political lens, then why are we here?"
Deller, coincidentally, says he declined to join a union when he taught at the University of Maine, opting instead to donate the dues he would have paid to a general scholarship fund that the university used to support low-income students.
The donation option was the alternative the University of Maine offered to address the issue of "free riders," or employees who benefit from union contracts without paying for membership.
"I think you could set up the same thing in Wisconsin," Deller says.