The pro-union commercial that is running on an endless loop out here is one to behold. It’s a simple monologue from a local firefighter, whose benefits aren’t being cut under Governor Deadeyes’ new budget bills. However, he said he and his fellow firefighters and police officers stand with the protesters.
“Either we stand together,” he notes. “Or we fall together.”
The recent budget disaster has spawned protests, courtroom challenges and a huge uptick in the number of pizzas bought and consumed in Madison. It’s probably also single-handedly accounting for the state’s newspapers finding financial solvency. Somewhat less notably, however, has been the plan that was hatched months ago between UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin and the Walker administration to sever the flagship campus from the rest of the system.
System President Kevin Reilly has been pushing for years for the system as a whole to receive the kinds of freedom that Madison will likely get under this budget. It includes freedom from some of the restrictive state buying standards, the ability to operate more independently and the opportunities to unilaterally set tuition. Prior to the release of the budget and before the Madison plan was public, Reilly sent Walker an outline of these issues (Download WalkerLetter) and these concerns, asking that the system be granted public authority status. The response was a “Well, we’ll see…”
When the plan to separate Madison from the system became known, the reaction from the majority of the UW-System officials was disbelief and anger. UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells has been on the forefront of this, arguing that the split will pit Madison against the remaining campuses when it comes to garnering resources and serving students. Bernie Patterson at Stevens Point has noted that the System works better when it’s working together. Thomas Harden at Green Bay has stated he is deeply troubled by this and wonders what this move and the potential severing of UW-Milwaukee will mean to those who remain part of the system.
Martin’s response? Pretty much, “Hey, I got mine.”
While she has spun answers on this topic into a positive, noting that she hopes other chancellors will get flexibility and that Madison will still remain an active partner with the other schools, the words ring hollow if you really listen to them. This smacks of the break up line “We can still be friends. I just need some space.”
Martin’s desperation for freedom will likely come at a heavy price and contain unforeseen landmines. The $125 million cut will be the largest absorbed by any of the state universities. Overcoming that in the short-term part of the deal will make for some difficult cuts and some ugly choices.
In addition, the public authority board will be composed of 21 people, 11 of whom Walker will appoint. While having the governor’s ear can be a benefit, having his foot on your neck obviously won’t be. “If they think they’ll be doing any kind of additional stem cell research beyond what they have, they should think again,” a system employee told me. “I don’t see (Walker) letting that happen.”
Tuition increases sound like a great idea when you’re trying to balance a budget, but they can be a hard sell to the students who are trying to enter your program. If you want the best and brightest, you need to make sure the doors stay wide open. Smart kids aren’t always rich kids. Even more, Walker is starting to gut former Gov. Jim Doyle’s Wisconsin Compact, so getting into good state schools is becoming harder and harder. During my time at Madison about 20 years ago, you could actually pay off your tuition by working really hard during the summer at a Joe job. Now, good luck… As the tuition continues to rise, Madison moves from becoming a good state school to an elitist semi-private one.
In addition, we’ve seen this play before. Prior to 1971, the campuses in this state were like Thunderdome: Every unit for itself. The state had The University of Wis-CON-sin (recognize!) and the wisconsin state universities (please don’t hit us…) and never the two shall meet. The fights for funding, opportunities, growth and more were ugly. To fix this, the state created the System to allow for the campuses to grow and flourish, with each receiving benefits for being part of the collective (Hmm… Wait… That sounds familiar…). Now, as more and more states are trying to be like this system, Madison is trying to be like something else. And that “something else” is likely to lead to intra-state divisiveness, battles for resources and elitism.
If this budget battle has taught anyone anything, it’s that sticking together through thick and thin is the way to go. People who have minimal stakes in the budget outcomes are standing shoulder to shoulder with people who could lose everything. Police and protester are sharing a symbiosis rarely seen. Support for the people is pouring in from every corner of the country and from places around the world.
Less than six blocks from Martin’s office, high atop Bascom Hill, the people of Wisconsin have flooded the Capitol Square and said in one loud voice, “WE won’t tolerate this! WE stand firm! WE are Wisconsin!” Perhaps she should wander through that crowd, experience the solidarity and think twice about this cut-and-run approach.