UW Struggle Update: Do Not Be Managed Into That Good Night

So much has happened this past week, sometimes hopeful, sometimes despair inducing, and given the nature of the information flow it is all pretty much impossible to summarize. A few observations:

The Chatter

powered-by-fairy-dustSince the release of Governor Walker’s budget, enough time has passed for a range of voices to emerge: Chancellors, students, faculty, staff, regents, alumni, community members, articles, open letters, and newspaper editorials represent a good portion of the volume. Let’s pretend that all of those voices make up a solar system with the UW itself being the central star. Let’s say the leverage a specific voice carries determines the size of that planet. Let’s say that the passion with which you speak about and defend the UW System positions you closer to the warmth that is the sun. Is there any question that Ray Cross, one of the largest planets in this system, appears to be the furthest away from the sun?

Let’s review: in reading transcripts from the Board of Regents meeting, it was refreshing to the point of surprise to hear someone speaking passionately about protecting the UW. Over to you, Regent Walsh, breaker of horses:

This is fairy dust. [The Public Authority] is not something I think we can rely on,” Walsh said. “At the end of the day, this is about Draconian cuts” and efforts to persuade lawmakers to reduce those cuts. “Damn it. It’s time we step forward and send a message to the State of Wisconsin that this is wrong and it’s not who we are.”


On my campus this week, there was a student protest against the budget cuts, and the two students quoted surpassed President Cross in their magnitude:

“I want faculty to keep doing what they’re doing, to keep doing what’s good for students,” said senior Abby Lauerman. “I think if state legislators could see their decisions affect real people, that it isn’t just a pie chart on a budget, maybe they would reconsider.”

Now that’s straight up word as well. From another student:

“Maybe (the cuts) won’t go away, but if we can work to reduce them,” Ahrens said. “We think it’ll diminish the quality of education. We see public education as a public good that should be paid for by the public.”

“‘We’re all for finding efficiencies, but we want the quality to be maintained,” he said. “We worry class sizes will increase, or out-of-state students will be favored because of the higher tuition rates.

“Wisconsin has one of the best university systems in the nation, and we want it to stay that way.”

Oh sizzle snap. That sounds like word to me.

Over to you President Cross: Flexibilities and certainty efficiencies for flexibilities of pricing the 21st century tomorrow of efficiency and accountability.

Um, thanks for your support?

The generous reading is that Cross is rhetorically constrained in ways that others aren’t: regents, students, some faculty, etc., can speak openly and with passion because they don’t have to sit down with legislators and ask for money. If President Cross walks into a Joint Finance meeting and even gives a whiff of brimstone our system gets completely nuked more than it already has. What’s the man to do?

On the other hand, and I’ll ask this question again, do we need a single system President to be our voice in such forums? Is it actually working against our interests to not have a diversity of voices present at all times? Is this model often misrepresenting who we actually are? It’s hard not to listen to the music of our spheres and feel this way. Again, we have 14 Chancellors anchored in communities across the state; I wish they could speak more without having to be “on message.”

Watching System’s performance has led to me thinking quite a bit about leadership, about representation, and what it means to speak, fight, and stand for something when the times require. Here’s what I hope I would never be in such a leadership position: paternalistic, controlling, and working toward a pre-determined endpoint.

About that Public Authority

The Board of Regents pushed back against President Cross’ “now or never” approach to sweeping systemic change. Responses are varied on the results of that push back: some people way more capable than me believe the PA won’t happen, and that the Regents resistance and intense questioning signaled to the legislature (who want to keep control anyway) to put the brakes on. Others feel the opposite—the Regents’ resolution signals a support for the PA. I understand both fronts on this, but am simply not smart enough to judge the weight of the claims.

The magic resolution reads:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Board of Regents hereby requests that the Wisconsin State Legislature grant the flexibilities sought by the System either through an agreed-upon public authority or appropriate amendments to state statutes, including a dedicated funding stream for state-supported UW operations and appropriate technical changes to the proposed budget to allow the System to more effectively and efficiently implement these flexibilities, manage operations, and serve the students and taxpayers of Wisconsin. (emphasis mine)

Not to invoke the Supreme Court on healthcare, but it all depends on how the phrase “agreed upon” is interpreted. Who are the parties that must agree? If it’s just Cross and the legislature, then we have a PA. If it’s the legislature and the host of other people contributing to this process, we won’t have a PA now and will move into a research phase.

Also (gasp!), Regents asked the obvious question: why don’t we just legislate the desired flexibilities?

This is where tinfoil hats fit better than expected, no? Because one imagined answer is: Because we want to do more than we’re actually indicating to our employees, students, and constituents. Another answer is simply: Because we’re not that into you, state legislature. You’re making it really hard for us to do our jobs and by this point you leave us no other option than to give up on you. I get this. I really do. But I’ll offer this one more time: there is no such thing as a Public Authority. The UW System in or out of such an authority is no less under the control of the legislature. We’re just sort of hoping that they like the room’s new paint job enough to finally let us put some of the furniture where we want it.

Regent Praise

I’ll say this: some comments by the Board of Regents were downright inspiring in that they reminded us who we are (seems like someone else’s job) and flashed a little bit of “Let’s not give up!” Now, there are many comparisons to Minnesota these days, especially as they drive forward (stealing our state motto) while we align our compasses with rigor mortis. Can we ever take the state back? Can we believe in ourselves and the greatness of education again? I’d actually venture that Minnesota has fought through and come back from a lot. For example, this used to be their Governor:

Can I get a motion on the floor?

Their football team used to be coached by Burgess Meredith:

Jerry Burns
Come on, Rock! We need speed!


And this was their most visible, national politician:

I’z in charge of your schools now!


So, if Minnesota can claw back and turn it around, so can we, and without dropping the responsibility for funding our university system on the state’s lowest earners.

I’ll just leave this here

I’m just going to leave a few charts below that I think speak to some of our problems at the state, national, and global level. To solve difficult problems, we need to move past rhetorical strategies whose primary tropes are conflict, one-upmanship, victory, submission, etc. Do with these what you will:

Wisconsin Assembly Wisconsin Senate


UW Chancellors
UW Chancellors


Way to be, Joint Finance Committee!
Way to be, Joint Finance Committee!

System President


Thanks for listening. Peace and Soul.

5 thoughts on “UW Struggle Update: Do Not Be Managed Into That Good Night

  1. i understand that at my UW-system campus, leaders are not allowed to speak to legislators in their official capacities (Dean, Chancellor, etc.) without a UW-System representative present. Can’t recall this level of message control ever before.

    1. I would you like you to verify that. I am a retired UW administrator (I think I may have hired Chuck and was unhappy when he went to GB, but God opportunitis need support ) and I can tell you what you are suggesting was NEVER the case under previous System administrators. That would be outlandish, if true, and also should be known, if true.

  2. Insightful comments, Chuck! Keep pounding on the differences between MN and WI….. our focus has been on education and reinvestment in the infrastructure…. as well as tax increases for the top 1%. The results…. an almost $2 billion surplus. Don’t let the overturn of the Democratic majority in the House confuse you…. it was totally outstate MN that ganged up on Democrats over the same sex marriage issue. It is going to be much more difficult to accomplish great things with a divided Legislature now…. but the facts speak for themselves (unless you don’t trust the facts 🙂

  3. Re: pie charts, let’s not forget about UW System President Katharine Lyall, who was one of our better ones, someone who had vision and was ethically faultless.

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