The Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board captured the prevailing opinion last weekend when it called the jaw-dropping $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin "inexplicable." Unfortunately, the board is wrong. There is a plausible vision behind what Gov. Scott Walker is trying to do, which makes his proposal much more dangerous than a simple misunderstanding of university operations.
The concrete meaning of a $300 million cut is not easy to comprehend, especially since it follows $452 million in separate cuts since Walker was elected. According to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, shutting down the schools of law, business, nursing, pharmacy and veterinary medicine combined would not cover her campus's share of the cut. Nor would laying off a third of the faculty. Nor would laying off more than 1,000 staff. The cut is timed to coincide with a tuition freeze, so the university cannot make up the lost revenue. No suddenly discovered efficiencies, limited autonomies granted to the Board of Regents or faculty "doing more work" (as Walker urges) will offset a gap of this magnitude. The consequences are as obvious as they are inevitable: mass layoffs, closing campuses or both.
Since this proposal was announced last week, my colleagues and I have puzzled over Walker's motivations. But the broader picture came into focus with the bombshell disclosure that either he or his staff sought to rewrite the university's statutory mission, deleting "to serve and stimulate society," "public service," "improve the human condition" and "the search for truth," replacing this language with, "meet the state's workforce needs." The outrage was so intense that he quickly promised to withdraw the wording change. Nevertheless, it all makes sense now.
Walker's ambition is to convert the University of Wisconsin into an enormous technical college. His goals are not to pursue knowledge and serve the broader public interest, but to supply employers with job candidates. Crank students through vocational training, and don't bother with holistic cognitive development. Elite faculty with their prestigious research grants and top-tier doctoral students with their cutting-edge dissertations are in the way of dramatically expanding trade-school style narrow job training. Diminish the university enough, and most of them will leave. Let somebody else worry about scientific breakthroughs and humanistic innovation. We need to do what employers want — and nothing more. The deeper ideology here mistakenly equates business interest with the public interest.
Walker is woefully misguided. The accumulated wisdom from generations of universities, in part, is that it is precisely the drive to expand human knowledge that generates the skills most useful in the widest variety of jobs. It is largely university-led innovation today that creates the industries of tomorrow. Converting the university into a vocational school would devastate the state's long-term economic viability, to say nothing of nonfinancial quality of life. Could attacking universities be the next frontier in the assault on the public sector?
It has taken generations of investment to create one of the world's most distinguished all-around public universities in Wisconsin. Hacking away at it to get through a budget cycle or appease the short-term interests of employers is the worst possible form of public stewardship.
Walker appears to be trying to replace Wisconsin's public universities with technical colleges, instead of the current system, which contains both types of institutions. No pursuit of knowledge here, just vocational training, please. These are the real stakes in the debate over this budget proposal.