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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Campuses Under Attack

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It’s no surprise the University of Wisconsin System would begin setting aside extra reserve funds when the most anti-education governor and Legislature in state history took control of Wisconsin’s government.

After all, universities are run by well-educated, intelligent people.

The current blistering attacks on the UW System in the media prove, if anything, that university officials underestimated the hostility of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative supporters toward higher education.

Full disclosure: I teach a course on Milwaukee’s history of socialism and civil rights at UW-Milwaukee.

If that gives me any bias, it’s for today’s college students who graduate with enormous financial debt into one of the slowest growing state economies in the nation.

That’s because Republicans in power are far more interested in creating fake controversies to justify punishing the so-called ivory tower academics they loathe than in funding the state’s most important engine for economic development—education.

The Walker administration made that sentiment clear in its first budget when it made the largest cuts in state history to education at all levels—elementary and secondary schools, technical colleges and the university system.

For UW’s 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year colleges, that added up to a $315 million financial gutting, which should be a public scandal.

Instead, Republicans are trying to create a scandal out of the fact that the UW System hasn’t spent every cent it has. Of course, they would attack university officials for being financially irresponsible if they did.

Inflamed legislative hearings haven’t yet gotten to the point of waterboarding university officials, but UW System President Kevin Reilly has had to face plenty of enhanced interrogation.

Loose talk about educational crooks, con men and slush funds are being tossed around by scratching and clawing legislators.

 

Controversy as an Excuse to Cut Funding

What is all this really about? Actually, nothing more than what any prudent $5.6 billion company—which is what the UW System is—would do in financially perilous times. It keeps a certain percentage of its budget in reserve.

The public has no idea how much UW campuses really have in reserve funds or whether it’s too much or too little. Critics use the largest possible figure—$648 million. University officials use a much smaller figure of uncommitted funds—$207 million.

Instead of sorting out the truth, the media either use the worst-sounding figure or both of them. There has been some good reporting about the fact that UW’s reserve funds are not out of line with comparable major universities.

But even after that “nothing to see here” fact gets reported, the media goes back to over-hyping venomous attacks on the university from frothing-at-the-mouth Republicans.

Now Gov. Walker is talking about using the controversy as an excuse to remove a modest restoration of $181 million to UW, only a bit more than half of what he cut from the university in his last budget.

Clearly, whether Walker is claiming a budget deficit as he did two years ago or a budget surplus as he does now, slashing funds from education is always in season for Republicans.

One of the more transparently dishonest public performances features great big alligator tears from legislators weeping for the poor university students who’ve suffered tuition increases in recent years.

Legislators truly concerned about holding down tuition do not vote for record $315 million in university funding cuts in the first place. UW’s tuition increases of 5.5% restored only about a third of what the Legislature slashed.

Besides, the only people on campus Republicans dislike more than elitist professors and administrators are those damn kids.

That’s why when Walker’s Republicans passed a law restricting the right to vote by requiring photo IDs, they specifically wrote the law so no existing Wisconsin college IDs qualified. (Colleges redesigned their IDs to thwart the Republicans’ attempt to disenfranchise their students.)

Students with college IDs also were required to provide evidence of current enrollment. Other citizens were free to vote whether they were enrolled in school or not.

It’s perfectly understandable that Walker and his Republican supporters resent well-educated people. The well-educated are less susceptible to simple-minded political rhetoric.

But first-class universities are also fertile ground for innovative research that creates brand-new industries and healthy growth in good-paying jobs for graduating students.

A perfect example is UW’s pioneering stem cell research, which holds almost unlimited potential for curing human disease and repairing bodies damaged from birth defects or devastating injury.

An extraordinary number of highly skilled, highly paid real jobs could be created in Wisconsin by such an extraordinary medical revolution, but only if it survives right-wing attacks from narrow-minded, anti-university politicians.

We’ve always promoted the ideal of education changing the world. It can end ignorance and prejudice. It can eradicate violence in our communities and hunger everywhere. It can lift the darkness and light the world.

But only if we can stop dim politicians from trying to keep everyone in the dark by defunding it.