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Scott Walker's Austerity Agenda Brings the Shock Doctrine to Wisconsin Universities

As the recall election looms over Wisconsin, UW-Madison struggles under the weight of Scott Walker's free-market "reforms."

Photo Credit: marctasman via Flickr


This story originally appeared at Labor Notes.

Wisconsin’s historic recall election has taken center stage in the state’s politics. Yet behind the recall curtain, the state struggles to manage damaging budget cuts enacted by Governor Scott Walker.

One key issue is the state-mandated redesign of the University of Wisconsin’s human resources system. This plan threatens how the university instructs its students, supports its faculty, and protects the rights of its employees.

Responding to the growing culture of austerity, UW-Madison has turned toward “efficiency” measures to restructure university jobs in accordance with market-based ideas.

The shift contradicts the historical mission of the state’s university system, which is grounded in service to the public good, a philosophy coined “The Wisconsin Idea.” Established in the early 1900s by Wisconsin Governor Bob La Follette, the Wisconsin Idea espouses affordable and accessible education, research that meets the state’s social and industrial needs, and progressive reforms such as corporate taxation, protection of workers’ rights, and government regulation of finance.

But Wisconsin’s current leaders have new ideas for the state and its universities.

When Walker entered office in January 2011, the state had a budget surplus of more than $120 million. Walker made quick work of creating a budget crisis, allocating $140 million in corporate tax write-offs and giveaways during his first weeks in office.

Under cover of the manufactured budget deficit, Walker passed legislation that eliminated collective bargaining rights for public sector employees and cut the state’s social services drastically, including all levels of the education system and the state health care program.

Wisconsin’s 2011-2013 budget slashed $250 million in state funding for the university system and later added an extra $46 million in debt allocated specifically to UW-Madison.


Attempting to forge a new relationship with the state, former UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin negotiated with Walker last year behind closed doors to improve the university’s “flexibility.”

In flagrant violation of the university’s shared-governance procedures, Martin developed a PR campaign dubbed “The New Badger Partnership,” designed to separate the Madison campus from the larger university system.

According to partnership supporters, the plan would increase UW Madison’s global competitiveness by offering more opportunities for faculty to secure private research dollars, rather than relying on state aid and its cumbersome red tape.

Critics, however, say such a plan would not only accelerate the decline in state aid to UW-Madison but also contradict key components of the Wisconsin Idea. The university would be beholden to private research funds, alumni donations, and tuition dollars. Tuition would skyrocket, making the university inaccessible to working class families. (Costs are already up: Walker’s predecessor, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, boosted tuition and fees by 32.5 percent.)

Martin’s agenda (and both Doyle’s and Walkers’ cuts) fit into the national trend: Campus administrators respond to shrinking public funding by ratcheting up marketing campaigns in a bid to attract students they view as education customers in a competitive marketplace, ditching commitments to public or educational priorities.

The Few or the Many?

One less-understood effect of Walker’s attack on public workers is now coming into full view. He mandated a reorganization of the UW-Madison personnel system in July 2011, to be completed July 2013, and this year administrators proposed a plan that emphasizes “efficiency” and “flexibility.”

The proposed plan could reduce workers’ pay and vacation by moving to a “market-based model” for compensation. It recommends a “performance pay” model, enabling departments to incentivize “star” research faculty over others, rewarding those few who can afford to overwork, while increasing reliance on adjuncts, graduate students, and lab techs to execute the university’s teaching and mentorship missions.