You Call Yourself a Cadillac

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Chancellor Martin asked Governor Walker for a Chevrolet, and he graciously offered her a Cadillac. We [the Badger Advocates] are here to make sure she gets that Cadillac."

This is the explanation offered by Pete Christianson (Badger Advocate chairman and immediate past-president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association) for the emergence of a private lobbying group devoted to advancing Chancellor Biddy Martin's New Badger Partnership. He made the statement at a Friday afternoon meeting of PROFS.

Listening to Pete go on about the virtues of the Martin-Walker partnership, Robert Nighthawk's old blues song immediately came to mind..."You call yourself a Cadillac but you act just like a T Model Ford...You call yourself my baby but you still don't treat me right..."

What we the people of Wisconsin deserve to know is what's under the hood of that Cadillac?

Seems like a reasonable question, but all we're told is that the NBP runs on flexibilities. It provides funding to UW-Madison as a block grant, allows the university to retain all of its revenues and set policies for use of that money, lets the Board of Trustees (rather than the Regents) establish tuition, eliminates oversight from OSER, and puts us into direct contact with DOA.

What does all of that accomplish? More specifically:

What exactly are the cost-savings? For whom?

What do we gain in terms of power and control over the protection of academic freedom? Shared governance?

Who in particular will have greater say-so over Madison? Who benefits from that change?

The answers to these questions are largely unclear. We have not been given hard data to prove that we will save a substantial amount of money. We have not been shown the savings relative to other cost-saving measures. Instead we're just told that the current system doesn't work and we need flexibilities to solve problems. We have not been shown where costs will increase--e.g. who will foot the bill. We are simply told that tuition will go up and this will--somehow--save students money.

The Badger Advocates told PROFS that the NBP brings no gains in terms of protections for academic freedom or shared governance. Faculty emails will not be more secure under the new plan. Here are Pete's own words (written in response to my initial recollection of his words, relayed on the first version of this posting):

"Whoever is Governor will control the Board of Regents and will also control the board created to govern the Madison campus. Since the merger occurred in the 1970's, no Governor has done anything to further [protect] academic freedom or shared governance or make faculty emails more secure. If you have a complaint in this area it is with every Governor who has served since merger."

Well there you have it-- no gains for any of these important public university protections will come with the NBP. Next "advantage"?

In terms of who will gain more power with a public authority model, the answers are unspoken but not at all unclear. The Chancellor will have more power. So will the alumni and students and faculty named to the Board. Unsurprisingly, those are the folks lobbying for the change. I remain struck by the insistence of both Biddy Martin and Pete Christianson that we have nothing to fear from the Board of Trustees since it will be dominated by alumni. Our alumni are a vast, heterogeneous group of individuals. They include Lynne Cheney, J.B. Van Hollen, and David Keene, incoming president of the NRA and founder of CPAC. What reason do we have to believe that a few years attending Madison convinced these folks of the merits of public higher education and committed them to preserving all of its missions? If anything, it may have convinced them it needed to be radically changed. During Keene's days at Madison, he was “practically as right-wing as the Students for a Democratic Society are left-wing.” Walker could fulfill his commitments and increase his chances for conservative, political success by placing Keene on the Board of Trustees.

What's especially amazing is that the alumni who oppose the NBP are being silenced. Take a look at the array of negative comments made by alumni from all over. That page of comments has been deleted from the WAA website and whitewashed with a "thanks for your good dialogue and we support the NBP" positive statement.

The closer one looks at the NBP, the more questions arise. The most common argument made by its defenders are "If not NBP, then what?" That's the wrong question. Choosing the NBP in its Cadillac form -- the Cadillac created by Governor Scott Walker--means upending a System that has been in place for 40 years. Smart policymakers do not dismantle public policies or social programs without proof that (a) a new system has demonstrable benefits and (b) those benefits outweigh the costs of a radical change. The only substantial benefits to the NBP accrue to those who wish to see education privatized, and liberal education demolished. There are numerous such individuals throughout the United States and indeed the world, and they laid out specific plans for ending tenure and academic freedom decades ago. Those plans closely resemble the elements of this Cadillac. Why else is Walker expending his limited political capital on op-eds supporting the end of UW System and a major change in governance of UW-Madison? What we are seeing now is their manipulation of our chancellor and other leaders of public higher education, forcing them to deal with drastically unfair financial constraints and backing them into an untenable corner. It is from that highly compromised position that they are advancing a proposal that makes them feel like they are accomplishing something and protecting Madison from an untimely demise. If we do not look under the hood of this Cadillac, we are doomed.

Maybe that's a bit too dramatic. So let me end on with the words of a slightly older, much wiser colleague. "Once upon a time, the dream was to have a Chevy with a Caddy motor in it -- looks like nothing but flies like a bat out of hell. After not too long, people were dropping V8s into Vegas and things like that. That's what UW has traditionally been: Plain and modest-looking, but extremely powerful. Folks, what we've got here is a 1980s Coupe de Ville with a lawnmower engine."

Note: This post was updated at 750 pm on April 2 to reflect the input of Pete Christianson.