Source: University of Wisconsin
When Jeffrey Bartell attended UW-Madison as an undergraduate in the 1960s, the state paid for about 50% of his tuition. Bartell went on to have a successful career as a corporate lawyer and later gave back to his alma mater by serving on the UW System Board of Regents from 2006 to 2013.
But UW students today aren't as lucky as he was.
"State support has gone down precipitously in the last 20 to 30 years," Bartell says.
The UW is bracing for even deeper cuts, after Gov. Scott Walker proposed slashing $300 million from the UW System budget while transforming it into a public authority.
Although the added autonomy -- which UW officials have long desired -- will be nice, Bartell notes that the university is in the middle of a mandated two-year tuition freeze and will not be able to offset the funding cuts. He predicts that students will take longer to graduate due to diminished student services and decreased availability of advanced classes.
"Students are going to feel this directly," Bartell says.
The merits of Walker's plan have been questioned by Republicans and Democrats alike, while UW System employees and officials have spoken out strongly against the proposed changes, saying the funding cut would harm student learning and diminish the UW System's competitiveness.
Proponents of the plan say it will eventually save the UW System money by removing state oversight. Supporters also say a budget cut will force the state's universities to become more efficient as they streamline operations.
UW System spokesman Alex Hummel calls the funding issue a "moving target," adding that university administrators and officials will spend the next few months analyzing complex budgetary details before formulating a response.
"There's still a lot of questions," he says.
The March 5 meeting of the UW System Board of Regents will likely bring more clarity for new ways to channel funds and save money, but the funding cut presents "a serious challenge," Hummel says. Each of the UW System's 26 campuses will be closely examined, taking into account input from a broad constituency of stakeholders.
"Next month [there will be] a lot more concrete, substantive plans brought forward about how to manage the cuts looking further into the future," Hummel says.
The Legislature will likely vote on the governor's budget in June.
Deep cut, deep impact
The impact of the proposed funding cuts are complex and wide-reaching, says Andrew Reschovsky, a professor emeritus of public affairs and applied economics at the UW-Madison.
Staff reductions are "inevitable" and will likely affect a broad spectrum of UW System employees -- from janitorial workers to highly skilled research scientists.
In Madison, nearly one in 11 people work for the university. Layoffs at such a large employer will ripple through the community as a whole, but with the recovering economy, Reschovksy says, it's likely that the displaced employees will be able to find work elsewhere. The cuts probably won't immediately affect tenured professors, as a one-year notice of termination is required, but the secondary, and perhaps more important, impact of the cuts will be on faculty choosing to leave the university on their own.
"This is a prime opportunity [for other universities] to try and recruit a faculty member from the UW System," Reschovsky says. "And they're taking grant money and potential for future grants worth millions and millions of dollars with them."
UW-Madison reportedly lost two top candidates last week in the wake of the governor's announcement; Chancellor Rebecca Blank is calling them "casualties" of the proposed funding cut.
Each UW-Madison faculty member brings in roughly $242,000 to support his or her research, according to university statistics. Faculty and staff brought in more than $500 million in federal research awards in 2012-13.
But even with concerns over the loss of top personnel and the effect on the overall quality and competitiveness of the UW System, Reschovsky remains optimistic that institutions can weather the storm.
"Good systems and good reputations don't get destroyed overnight," he says. "If you take a long view, state universities have periods of growth and contraction coincident with the budget cycle."
More concerning, Reschovsky says, is the declining state support for public higher education in Wisconsin -- particularly given that the state is now well on its way to recovery after the economic recession. Wisconsin is one of only a few states that has not restored public funding for higher education to the level it was before 2009, when the recession hit hardest.
"Other states are expanding, and Wisconsin seems to be going in the opposite direction," he says.
The Wisconsin Idea
Beyond the historic funding cuts, the UW System's hallowed mission statement -- known as the Wisconsin Idea -- was also targeted by the Walker administration.
Documents surfaced last week showing key phrases like "truth" and "human condition" stricken from state statute and replaced with language about the UW System's role in training members of the state's workforce.
Gov. Walker backtracked from the change, at first calling it a "drafting error" but later acknowledging that his administration pushed the language changes through even as UW System officials objected. The governor blamed the snafu on a "miscommunication."
The Wisconsin Idea will remain intact, but the Walker administration's misfire prompted significant outcry, with many probing the governor's seemingly symbolic desire to diminish public institutions.
"We're really looking towards this model of privatization," says Richard Grusin, director of the Center for 21st Studies at UW-Milwaukee. "It really is a desperate kind of erasure of any notion of public sphere, public service, public good."
Grusin, who previously taught at Michigan's Wayne State University, sees the quasi-privatization of the UW System as an "executive power grab" that takes control away from both the Legislature and the campuses, as the governor appoints the UW System Board of Regents.
"I think what we're really looking at is a strengthening of the executive here," he says. "Clearly, it's done with an eye toward Walker's presidential campaign."