UW Struggle Update: Morality Check

GBDisclaimer: I am an idealist. This makes me quaint. I imagine others feel similarly when the ideals you hold close to your beating heart are not given serious consideration from serious people who only take seriously the various permutations of money and business and the empty signifier that is “accountability.”

Another tongue twister: I am embarrassed for myself that I am too embarrassed to ask, in public forums, about the morality of Ray Cross’ and Governor Walker’s plans for the UW System. My Chancellor, who I like, has said on numerous occasions that he supports our move to a public authority because he has experience with such systems and that the UW is too complex to be run by legislators who are not necessarily experts in higher education. I sympathize, but do all public authority models have to look like what we’re proposing?

Back to morality: is the funding mechanism for the proposed UW Public Authority model moral? Under the public authority, the funding (as I understand it) largely shifts to sales taxes, as per the UW’s own documentation: “It will be funded by the state’s sales tax, and increases will be based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases in the previous calendar year, beginning in 2018-19.” But don’t sales taxes disproportionately burden lower-income people? The very people that a public university system is supposed to be serving, helping, and breaking its back for in order to improve their lives?

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy thinks so. If I am reading this correctly, in 2015, Wisconsin sales and excise taxes averaged 5.5% of family income for the bottom 40% of earners, while only 4% for the top 40% of earners (and 6% for the lowest 20%, while only 0.8% for the top 1%). This is the system we want to shift to? What about where we are coming from (income tax)? In that system the bottom 40% pay an average .75% of their income (-0.2% for the lowest 20%), while the top 40% averages 4.35% (4.8 for the highest 1%).

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So I’ll ask: we currently have a system where (ideally!) higher earners contribute more to the funding of their state university system, and our System President and state Governor want to shift to a funding model where lower-income citizens contribute a larger portion of their income. Is this moral? My heart tells me is isn’t.

What is the system’s justification for this? In the document linked to above, they don’t justify the shift in terms of income bracket. However, they do say, “With a dedicated funding stream, UW System will be able to develop pricing and financial models, providing parents and students long-term predictability in costs.” In short, certainty. I like certainty. But do I like it more than having a state university system be accessible for low-income citizens, ideally at almost no cost? No.

I am an employee of the UW System, so I don’t feel out of line asking questions about the morality of our business practices. Though, even this is quaint (insert “In the real world…” and “go work somewhere else!” responses here). Are we giving up? That’s what I need to know. We live in a political climate where, frankly, people don’t want to pay for much regardless of the benefits accrued by the larger state. Are there now only personal economies? No collective, moral, creative, or emotional economies?

This is where leadership makes a difference. I expect more from my leadership than I am receiving, and the citizens of Wisconsin should (I hope) feel the same. So, if I am wrong, will someone please explain how a system largely funded by sales taxes, coupled with the “flexibility” to raise tuition, does not disproportionately push away from the UW the very people we are the most morally obligated to invite into our schools? These are sincere questions—jump in and educate me if I am interpreting this wrong.

Closing anecdote: I am a person of very moderate accomplishment. I earned a B.A, M.A, and PhD; I taught public high school, private high school, students in the UW’s two-year system, and I now teach at a four-year UW school. I’ve also published four books along the way (though their quality is up for debate).

None of the above would have been possible without an affordable, robustly-funded state university system. I went to one of the finest universities in the country (SUNY Buffalo) for almost nothing. If it weren’t for Pell Grants and minimal tuition, I would not have earned my B.A., and I would not be here now. No chance. I am a product of the Buffalo Public School system (Bennett High Tigers!) and struggled mightily to learn and succeed. SUNY Buffalo accepted me anyway. They accepted me into their English department (one of the finest in the world), where I, as a virtual know-nothing, took classes with world-renowned faculty. I sat in a course on epic literature with Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Carl Dennis. I was barely worthy of his time, yet he refashioned my life from one comfortable in the safety of withdrawal to one fueled by the risks of passion and curiosity.

In short, I am where I am in my life today because of a miracle. That miracle is public education. That miracle included a state-funded higher education system that believed in investment, not divestment.

If our goal is to shift cost to lower income brackets, further increase tuition, and engage in the fantasy that the only thing that matters for our state are business interests (which are important), then we have failed, morally, and don’t deserve to serve the people who need us. I hope I’m wrong. This is something I’ve been hoping for a little too much lately.

3 thoughts on “UW Struggle Update: Morality Check

  1. You are asking common sense/cents questions that need asking. Before one climbs on board this “new public authority bus” one needs to know who is driving it, the cost of gas, and it’s direction, and the distance it can and will go, and who can ride on it. Does everyone have to pay the same price for a ticket should be up for debate. Keep demanding open dialogue, and honest answers to your questions. Continue to fight the good fight!

  2. You and I share much the same background, Chuck, so perhaps it is no surprise we think so much alike. You are able to express it more eloquently than I.

    The point is, we don’t really know if a public authority is what we should do. The way to determine that is NOT to put this in a state budget, but rather to have a really good statewide study. And there are organizations that can facilitate that if we can convince our legislators to strip this out of the budget, and have that discussion.

    RE your chancellor, he’s new. He’s not at one of the heavweight UW campuses. He was hired by the system president. He answers to the system president. The system president expects loyalty, and has a reputation for not tolerating those who don’t think exactly as he does. Your chancellor may genuinely believe what he says, and he may be correct, but is he in the position to convince us of that?

    A decent non-partisan study will take some of baggage out of the mix.

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