UW Struggle: Part Deux, Public Authority Edition

Exhibit, A Work In ProgressWe are now in full fact-fee freefall, so let’s set the scene… [Pull back to panoramic view, farms and snow]

  • Editorials amount to: “This one professor at Madison makes X and teaches only Y classes; therefore, all UW professors own yachts, bathe in caviar, and reflect on how much smarter they are than everyone else. Burn it down!”
  • “Business” guys write to local paper: “I’m in the real world; therefore, the real world. This cut is a mere 2.6% of their operating budget. Also, the real world.” Note: this is also an argument for why Green Bay Packers tickets should be free, since they would still make a solid profit without the ticket revenue. But whatever.
  • Also, Americans for Americans Against Americans wants “accountability,” relying on a “study” commissioned by Taxpayers Against Paying Taxes and produced by Freedom Enterprises for Enterprises Against Other American Enterprises.
  • Finally, here is a gaggle of legislators saying the following today about UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank:

“Recently, (Blank) has said that the current proposal would have a negative impact on the UW-Madison campus — a stark contrast from former chancellor (Biddy) Martin’s message,” Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said in a statement. “This difference begs the question: Is the current chancellor and former Obama appointee playing politics with our state’s universities?”

Translation: This other person thought differently than you; therefore, why are you bringing politics into this entirely legislative affair? Thanks Obama!

Now to specifics… [Pan in to Central Offices in Madison, early morning. Cold.]

Yesterday, Noel Radomski posted an important and informative piece about the proposed public authority model, specifically comparing it to the university system in Virginia. Read it in full! Mr. Radomski, stiff-arming the fact-free ethos of contemporary argument, does the heavy lifting required by actual research, then some more research, and arrives at recommendations that in addition to being smart, imply that maybe we in Wisconsin might want to, you know, do some research. Again, read the whole thing. It’s dope.

Noel Radomski’s piece, in addition to providing information about the public-authority model, generates for me many questions about how this process is occurring in Wisconsin. To set the stage for those thoughts, here’s a major takeaway from Radomski—the process that led to Virginia adopting a public authority model evolved over many years and was the product of widespread, inclusive dialogue. How is Wisconsin doing in comparison? Not so well:

The idea of UW System public authority was shrouded behind closed doors. The public first learned about the proposed $300 million UW System budget cut and public authority idea in a January 26, 2015, AP article by Scott Bauer. At that time, the public was in the dark on what role, if any, UW System and campus leaders played in creating or providing feedback on the proposal. The public did not learn more about the role UW System and campus leaders played until the Wisconsin State Journal obtained emails under Wisconsin’s open records law. A February 11, 2015, Wisconsin State Journal article uncovered the fact that UW System President Ray Cross convened a closed-door meeting on January 5th to tell faculty leaders and chancellors about the impending budget cuts and authority proposal. The article details several provocative ideas that were discussed, such as transferring some UW System power to the colleges and universities, folding UW-Extension back into UW-Madison, and coupling the 13 two-year colleges to partner four-year campuses.

Recap: Virginia discussion of process = many years. Wisconsin discussion of process = 44 days since President Ray Cross told Chancellors and faculty. Forty-four days. Here are some thoughts and questions to wrap up… [jump cut to irrelevant English professor in diner, cheap coffee and cigarettes]:

The word “proposal” has been used a lot. I have asked my faculty representative, and others, if this refers to an actual document beyond the Governor’s budget summary. Answer: no. Nobody I asked has seen a proposal/sketch of what we’d want a public authority model to look like. I find this baffling. Weird. I mean, as a faculty member, I have to write a proposal to make sure picking my nose doesn’t violate FERPA. This is a proposed change to the entire UW System that largely redefines our existence! Is there a document that provides details…anywhere?

If “the proposal” only exists orally, as an idea, what are its specifics? This: “Flexibilities and efficiencies for the 21st century global Friedman blah blah blah.” My Chancellor has stated publicly that he supports the move to a public authority model. Other Chancellors have as well. Do they support an actual written and researched proposal? Or just the idea of flexibility and 21st Century global gymnastics? It seems like the latter. If so, I can’t emphasize the obvious enough (this is required of us now): there’s a difference between supporting the general idea of a proposal and an actual, flushed-out proposal, no? I will go out on a limb and call this difference “significant.”

The retort: “Well, we have to wait until the details are sketched out by the legislature, and over the coming weeks and months….” Oh, sorry, I dozed off for a moment. If that’s your response, stop. I’ll just ask: Is it even remotely possible that the President and the UW System, even if we don’t actually get to design the authority, have not written and circulated an actual proposal, with research and data, of what they’d hope this would look like? Again, does this strike anyone but me as completely bizarre? If such a proposal exists, no one I have reached out to has seen it, including my faculty representative.

I said in my last update that Ray Cross has lost me, and that hasn’t changed. Why? Noel Radomski, in his single blog post, has provided more information, research, and ideas than the entirety of the UW administration. I am happy to be wrong about this, so correct me. I will sacrifice any ego I have for knowledge in an instant. Honestly, if you were outside Wisconsin looking in, you might say, “Oh, Noel Radomski is a high-ranking UW official, right?” Is it really enough for us to let the Governor’s budget double as our vision for the public authority idea? Is it okay if we work a little something up on the side?

There are two ways I can interpret this:

First, cynically. We get buzzwords instead of actual details because a lot of us little people might not like those details. Also, shared governance is such a damn pain. Note: this is a process Ray Cross has used before, when he was Chancellor for the UW-Colleges and Extension. He and then President Kevin Reilly rammed through their plan for a competency-based “Flex Degree,” did so with almost no input from shared governance, and used fear and the illusion of pressing deadlines to make it happen: “Western Governors is coming! We must act fast! Details to come later!” All of this was done during the break between semesters when faculty governance and the like were not scheduled to meet. The contemporary situation feels similar: “Budget cuts are coming! We must act on this unrelated thing [the public authority] fast! Details to come later!” (My Chancellor, Gary Miller, has clearly stated that the budget and the public authority issues are not connected. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate that.)

Second, with a dropped jaw. If this isn’t Machiavellian, then is it… incompetent? Confused? Playing catch up? What? Now, whenever budget time approaches, our folks at central have a history of creating damaging headlines for the cause [see: cash reserves; see: healthcare over-payment fiasco]. If leadership is indeed lost and doing a dead reckoning based on buzzwords, then we have to concede an uncomfortable point–criticism of the system leadership (which gets extended to everyone else) is largely on target.

Maybe there is an in between. But I know this for sure: information is hard to come by (unless you file an FOI request), people are still feeding into the lie that this is somehow an exchange, and you’ll hear “flexibility” a lot.

Is it too much to ask for a detailed proposal, produced by the UW System, that lays out such a public authority as we see it working best for us? You know, OUR VISION. Even if the legislature ignored the document in its entirety, wouldn’t that a) show we did our homework b) help inform the little people known as employees and c) inform the public?

All of this will change tomorrow. [Fade to black. Exit music below]

12 thoughts on “UW Struggle: Part Deux, Public Authority Edition

  1. Kudos from UW-Milwaukee, too, where appreciative readers also are forwarding your work, far and wide — as well as Radomski’s fine analysis. But humor helps to alleviate low morale here, too — and provides a “take” on all of this deliberately created chaos that makes more sense of the madness than much that we are told (and, yes, we also fear that we are not being told much more that is a “done deal”) at constant all-campus budget crisis meetings.

    1. Thanks so much for saying that about the humor/tone. That’s sort of my default mode, but I really worry people might think I’m not taking this seriously, when in fact (like all of us), our lives and visions of education are at stake. I really appreciate you reading, and please be in touch/forward anything that helps understand all of this mess.

  2. The leadership of my System campus says “no one knows what Public Authority is” but “we are in favor of it.”

  3. Chuck,

    Much of this is very good and needed, thank you. I have to take issue on your discussion of the Flex Option. That was brought to the UW Colleges Senate as it was happening, and the faculty had oversight of the curriculum.

    Marc S.

    1. Hi Marc– Yes, but the Colleges is not the system, and I can tell you exactly when we first heard of it at GB–when it was a done deal and simply if we wanted to be involved. I have no doubt Colleges governance was involved earlier, as Cross wanted his institution to be the most involved. Our senate meeting, when central sent the person to talk with us, was not a governance meeting of any kind. It was informational

      1. That is pretty much how it arose at UW-Milwaukee, too — the main provider of FlexOption courses. And Walker had promised major funding for it, in the many millions . . . but then backtracked on that, too, with his faux “surplus.” So, UW-Milwaukee was mandated to go forward with FlexOption but without more funding, which means that other students funded it with their tuition, other programs’ budgets had to be raided to fund it, to this day.

        1. I had heard something similar, as we are in close connection with UWM’s nursing program. Frankly, that’s awful, and I blame Reilly and Cross full-force for that. Luckily, our faculty senate voted to not participate unless we could build our program with our own people. It appears that decision was, so far, wise.

  4. Keep it up Chuck. The use of humor draws one into the argument. I wonder if anyone from UW System sees these as thinks, “Damn, they know what we’re up to. Damn!”

  5. Thanks for speaking truth to power, Chuck. Apparently it takes a poet to notice what lurks behind the official communications and lack thereof that we all seem to take at face value, which is a terrible error. It all seems so obvious once you say it out loud.

  6. Excellent piece, thank you! You have an unique lense and talent to convey that into relevant questions and ideas. Keep up the analysis and asking the tough questions. Now where are the answers?

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