Sunday, February 22, 2015

The UW will live

Recently, I wrote a piece at Right Wisconsin on the flap over the "Wisconsin Idea" at Right Wisconsin. Short version: the Wisconsin Idea is a common place generality that, at least in 2015, distinguishes the University of Wisconsin from nobody. No one has suggested that UW become a trade school or abandon research.

Are the proposed cuts to the UW budget "slashing" and "crippling" and "decimating?" Will they cause the UW to grind to a "halt?' I've read read repeated claims, in the Journal Sentinel and elsewhere, that they are and will.

Most of the media has elided the true nature of the proposed reduction by emphasizing that the cuts are roughly a 13% reduction in state aid. So they are. But most of the UW's revenue does not come from the state government. Much of the media has framed the story to imply that the UW campuses will have 13% less money to do what they do.

That is just false. The reduction in state aid amounts to 2.5% in revenue. That is how much less the UW will have to spend. I am sure that a cut of that magnitude will be felt, but it is simply not existential.

The Journal Sentinel's Politifact turned its attention to the magnitude of the cut. Some of the UW's revenue is restricted, i.e., it must be used for a particular purpose. Some of it is activity related. If, for example, you make money by selling tickets to a football game or running a basketball camp, you can't eliminate the game or the camp. It is sometimes claimed that over 60% of UW revenue falls into that category. Thus, Politifact suggested that one might argue the cut is "really" 6.5%.

I don't buy it. I am skeptical that 60% of the UW budget's is actually committed to uses that cannot be altered or delivered at a lower cost without violating some type of legal constraint. In fact to say so strikes me as facially implausible. But even if it were so, it would mean that roughly 60% of what the UW does would be untouched by the budget cuts and only the remaining 40% would see a 6.5% reduction. Unless you assume that the 60% is  being spent for extraneous purposes, that fact is significant and saying that they "system" has been cut by 6.5% is, at best, wildly misleading. In fact, it's pants on fire wrong.

Having said that, I agree that the real world impact might be a bit heavier than using the  2.5% number suggests in that some uses of funds will be more vulnerable than others.

In addition, the university has hamstrung itself. It  is bound by things like tenure and shared governance. These things make it difficult to more rationally allocate faculty. Having spent four years working full time on a law faculty, I am not persuaded that either of these things are as valuable as folks in academia commonly suppose they are. Tenure is supposed to protect the iconoclast and promote intellectual diversity, but the modern university is one of the more conformist institutions in our society. This is, in part, a product of shared governance. Faculties tend to replicate themselves. As one law professor once told me, "my colleagues' idea of diversity is to hire people who went to the same schools, worked in the same places, think the same way but look different."

I don't believe that tenure necessarily results in lazy professors. Most of my colleagues at Marquette - who generally only taught two classes each semester - contributed to the institution in additional ways, such as scholarship, development of curricula and clinical education and administration. But, regarding those few who did not, little could be done. In addition, the nature of these contributions tend to be chosen by the faculty member and not the administration. That's significant. For example, there is a presumption that all faculty should be engaged in research. This leads to a lot of dubious work. Some professors should teach more and write less, but the Dean generally cannot make that happen.

There are reasons for giving faculty some greater degree of autonomy than a corporation might, for example, give its marketing department. Moreover, the UW - and, for that matter, Marquette - couldn't possibly unilaterally move away from things like tenure, shared governance and light teaching loads. They'd bleed faculty and wouldn't attract good new professors. On this point, Chancellor Blank is correct. Our way of providing higher education is designed to be expensive.

But it is not knuckle-dragging philistinism to suggest that, when money is tight, some teachers should spend more time in the class room.

There is also a public fiction that cuts must be painless. Let's accept the fact that a cut in the UW budget will have real costs. The system won't be able to do things that, in an ideal world, we'd want it to do. It's a sad fact of life that money doesn't always stretch as far as we'd like. Wisconsin is still a high tax state. I think it is reasonable that there be a strong presumption against increasing them. (And, no, I'm not persuaded by arguments that restoring the cuts would only increase taxes a small amount. That's going to be true of any proposed reduction in government spending. All of those "small contributions" to this or that state program have resulted in a state with a relatively large tax burden.)

Here's another thing that you don't read. The UW's budget has been steadily increasing. For example, in 2002-2003, the system served approximately 140,000 students with a budget of roughly $ 3.5 billion, or a little under $ 25,000 per student. In 2011-2012, it enrolled a little over 155,000 students and had a budget of $ 5.9 billion, amounting to $ 36,000/student. That's a very large real increase. I'm sure that one can look behind these numbers in a variety of ways and it is certainly true that the increase has not come from additional state aid. But, at least at first blush, it doesn't seem like the UW is starved for money. Actually, it seems likes it has been doing quite well. Certainly much better than the taxpayers who it believes should pay more so that it will not have to make do with less.

I'm still not persuaded that the proposed UW cuts are a good idea. But I can't buy into the hair-on-fire hysteria with which they have been met.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

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