Butchering Badgers: Public University or Abattoir?

On Saturday the president of AAUP Wisconsin tweeted the draft of a revision of University of Wisconsin System’s administrative policy on program productivity,” a revision which mandates the obligatory elimination of academic programs not meeting certain productivity” criteria. The only criteria detailed in the draft policy is a minimum average number of graduates within a five year period1; it does not include (for example) total enrollments, total credit hours of instruction by program faculty, or high-enrollment service courses taught within the program’s array of courses that are subscribed to by multiple programs or that satisfy campus-wide requirements.

Worse, the draft policy appears to be crafted in a way that skirts any vote by the UW System Board of Regents, to which authority over the UW System’s program array is reserved by state law. According to Nick Fleisher, AAUPs state president & associate professor of linguistics at UW-Milwaukee, the positioning of the policy as a revision of UW System Administrative Policy — rather than as a Board of Regents policy — means it would need approval by only the System President, Ray Cross. Cross was appointed by Scott Walker in 2014, and has since presided over a $250 million cut in state funding, the gutting of tenure from state statue, and a contentious annexation of the UW System’s two-year colleges by some of the System’s four-year universities. This last project was planned in secret, or, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UW System president intentionally kept his plans a secret from campus governance groups so they wouldn’t be thwarted.” The chancellor of those two-year UW campuses found out about the planned elimination of her institutions not from Cross, but when the story leaked statewide ahead of Cross’ announcement. Cross has received no confidence” rebukes from several UW System institutions, including the faculty of both Research I universities (UW–Madison & UW–Milwaukee). Cross received another unambiguous upbraiding from UW-Madison’s chapter of AAUP earlier this year.

As AAUP president Fleisher observed, this policy is a major, direct attack on the faculty’s authority over its curriculum, and an end-run around faculty termination strictures already hollowed-out by the elimination of tenure provisions from state law. As former UW-Madison professor of Educational Policy Studies Sara Goldrick-Rab observed when she left the University in 2016, this is part of a larger plan to vandalize Wisconsin’s greatest asset: its public universities.2 Indeed, taken with the new tenure policy adopted by the Board of Regents in 2016 that included an unprecedented provision to lay off tenured faculty of discontinued academic programs, this draft policy appears to be the next step in a premeditated-in-secret, coordinated assault on Wisconsin’s public universities. Cross’ past actions, particularly his demonstrated contempt for shared governance & his secret planning of massive alterations to the public university system, suggest he should not be given the benefit of the doubt.

Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge

And when he occupies a college,
Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

— W.H. Auden, Under Which Lyre”

Among the programs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison alone that would be targeted for elimination if the draft policy were in effect today (B = Bachelor’s degree program, M = Master’s degree program):

  • African Languages & Literature (M)
  • Afro-American Studies (M)
  • Agronomy (M)
  • Art History (M)
  • Biochemistry (M)
  • Biophysics (M)
  • Botany (M)
  • Cancer Biology (M)
  • Cellular & Molecular Biology (M)
  • Comparative Literature & Folklore Studies (B & M)
  • Engineering Physics (B)
  • Entomology (B)
  • Freshwater & Marine Sciences (M)
  • History of Science, Medicine, & Technology (M)
  • Horticulture (M)
  • Jewish Studies (B)
  • Languages & Cultures of Asia (M)
  • Latin (B)
  • Linguistics (M)
  • Music (M)
  • Music Education (M)
  • Neuroscience (M)
  • Plant Breeding & Plant Genetics (M)
  • Plant Pathology (M)
  • Polish (B)
  • Portuguese (M)
  • Poultry Science (B)
  • Scandinavian Studies (M)
  • Slavic Languages & Literatures (M)
  • Zoology (M)

Were this policy currently in effect, UW-Madison would be expected to submit a plan of action to remediate the low producing [sic] program” within one semester; if that deadline were not met, UW System would begin the governance process for program elimination.” Under the current administrative rules referenced in the draft proposal, UW System could then eliminate the program with as little as four weeks’ notice. Should UW-Madison submit a plan of action to remediate a program, the program would receive a stay of execution for three academic years. Should the program not met the criteria after that time, the draft policy’s guidance is bleak: If after three years, [sic] the program still does not improve, UW System will communicate with the institution to eliminate the program using its governance process… .”

The only option to appeal provided to an institution placed in this position is to UW System — under this draft, a self-appointed judge, jury, & executioner. In his above-linked tweet thread, AAUP president Fleisher noted this appears to be an unprecedented power grab by the UW System’s president:

So we have a draft policy in which Ray Cross/UWSA propose to establish criteria for *obligatory* program closure, on the basis of powers it’s not clear they actually have, using a process that requires only appropriate levels of consultation with affected stakeholders”

Curiously, UW System has not elected to comment directly on the draft policy:

A spokesperson for the system initially referred requests for comment to Greg Summers, provost at the Stevens Point campus and architect of its new plan to eliminate 13 programs, including English, history, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish. Via email, Summers said he supported the policy and its inclusion of shared governance and an appeals mechanism. Hesitant to comment in much detail on something that is still in draft form, Summers said that carefully monitoring program enrollments has always been a fundamental responsibility of the [Wisconsin] system.”

Fleisher points out UW System’s authority is bounded by Regent policy, which specifies its limitation to monitoring and analyzing the current program array, including degree productivity, distance education offerings, and modes of delivery; working with UW institutions in identifying gaps in the current array to address changing and emerging workforce and societal needs,” among other duties. Final authority over programs rests, under state law, with the Board of Regents.

Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

— Auden again

I am disgusted by the revelation of this draft policy, but I am not surprised. As I remarked yesterday, to work in public higher education in Wisconsin since 2011 is to work in institutions being sabotaged, deliberately & acutely, by the state’s own leadership. The vandalism is unrelenting & ever-worsening, amounting to an absolute looting of a century-plus of public investment in a world-class university system by resentful, obdurate, contemptuous hatchet men. The goal: the extirpation of faculty & staff dedicated to the search for truth, in favor of the narrow vision of a university intended merely to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs.

There aren’t enough tourniquets for the wounds inflicted by these butchers.

  1. The criteria specify metrics at the bachelor’s & master’s levels; doctoral programs are assessed separately accordingg to specific criteria established by the doctoral granting [sic] institutions.↩︎

  2. UW System’s crass evaluation of the value of the importance of its institutions to the state by an economic impact study is nonetheless breathtaking: $24 billion.↩︎

academic freedom higher education University of Wisconsin Wisconsin

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