Disaster Capitalism Hits Higher Education in Wisconsin

Disaster Capitalism Hits Higher Education in Wisconsin

Disaster Capitalism Hits Higher Education in Wisconsin

The president of the University of Wisconsin System is trying to reconcile a well-funded assault on public institutions with the state’s deep blue sea of support for accessible education.


Pity Ray Cross. The formerly genial president of the University of Wisconsin System is trapped between an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)–fueled state government and Board of Regents, on the one hand, and the venerable, obstinately popular “Wisconsin Idea” of accessible public higher education, on the other. What’s an ambitious university administrator to do?

Cross’s conundrum has forced him into some questionable bargains, as he attempts to reconcile a devilish, well-funded assault on public institutions with the deep blue sea of support for accessible education. Most recently, Cross back-doored a deal to merge the UW Colleges, a network of two-year campuses he once led as chancellor, into the Wisconsin system’s larger, comprehensive universities. Recognizing that the access and affordability the UW Colleges provide throughout this predominantly rural state could well make this move controversial, Cross kept the merger a secret between him and the regents, surprising even the current UW Colleges chancellor with an announcement in October. Recently, Wisconsin Public Radio obtained e-mails exchanged between Cross and Regent Gerald Whitburn, in which Cross complains of “getting hammered by the ‘shared governance’ leaders complaining that they haven’t been involved in the process; however, had they been involved, we wouldn’t be doing anything.”

Strong protections for academic freedom and democratic governance have been foundational to the creation of an internationally venerated university system here. One of Cross’s predecessors, Charles Van Hise, first articulated what has come to be known as the Wisconsin Idea in 1905, declaring: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state.” With their open admissions practices and locations in small communities around the state, the UW Colleges have been a crucial realization of the Wisconsin Idea.

The Wisconsin Idea also infused Chapter 36, the same state law that created the UW System in its current form in 1973:

The mission of the system is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

Recognizing that “the search for truth” can be a complicated pursuit, Chapter 36 linked its lofty mission to iron-clad protections for tenure and academic freedom and affirmed the centrality of democratic governance to these pursuits. Faculty, academic staff, and students were each to have as their primary responsibility advising the chancellor in “all policies and procedures” of concern to them, as well as “the right to organize themselves in a manner they determine and to select their representatives to participate in institutional governance.” The Wisconsin Idea linked broad access to public higher education to democratic institutional conduct at the university. Both are anathema to those leading the current extremist assault.

The rights and protections of the Wisconsin Idea have now come under ALEC-funded fire from Governor Walker, state legislators, and the governor-appointed Board of Regents. Adhering to the protocols of disaster capitalism, this cabal has used a manufactured crisis in public funding to justify the diminution of educational democracy. In 2015, Governor Walker announced a state budget with a $250 million cut to General Purpose Revenue (GPR) for the University of Wisconsin System: an 11 percent reduction in state support in a system already predominantly reliant on tuition revenue. At the same time, Act 55, which removed tenure and democratic governance from state statute was introduced. Both passed through the gerrymandered state legislature in June 2015.

Removing tenure and shared governance from state statute, Act 55 required the UW system to create policies that would pass muster with the Board of Regents. Accordingly, and over the objections of a faculty task force, the board passed new policies empowering university administrators over shared governance. Deploying the familiar logic of disaster capitalism, Cross explained that, in challenging economic times, administrators need flexibility: “it is almost impossible to separate fiscal issues from educational considerations.”

Trapped in the false logic of deliberately created public austerity, Ray Cross sees few alternatives but to reshape the UW system without the input of faculty, staff, or students. In October, the UW Colleges Faculty Council wrote a letter asserting the importance of their labor in the two year colleges around that state. In it, they articulated priorities beyond the false imperatives of austerity and “flexibility”:

We are all heartbroken that [our] labor will be undone by a single vote. But we are not naive. We only ask that you preserve those very core things–the mission–that brought us all to work at the UW Colleges and respect the labor we have contributed to making it what it is.

As yet, it is unclear what the merger plan will mean for the fate of these institutions, with their historic mission of broad access under the lofty rubric of the Wisconsin Idea. A recent “No Confidence” resolution by the UW Stout Student senate termed Cross’s leadership “ruinous.” If the purpose of university administration is to provide broad access to democratic public higher education, they are correct.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy