Saturday, June 20, 2015

Wisconsin Higher Ed Under Attack

By Professor Doom

     Across the country, states are in financial crisis, and in need of money. Naturally, they’ll turn to the higher education budget for a source of funds—it’s a curious feature of the American god of Democracy, that our leaders are always looking for the quick fix, always looking to kick the can of any problem down the road. This is a feature of Democracy because a Democratic leader doesn’t own anything he rules, gets nothing to pass down to his children like a proper monarch. Thus, “take what I can now, and any problem that will take 4 or more years to come to pass can’t be a concern to me” is key to being a successful leader in a Democracy. 

     Education makes a good target. You can take the money out now, gut the education to make it a joke, and it’ll be years before the public realizes what happened as their children graduate with worthless degrees. Meanwhile, the state government responsible for the gutting will have long rolled over; the newly elected governor will have no trouble blaming it on the previous administration.

     The state to most aggressively target higher education is probably Wisconsin. Governor Walker has already suggested the way for faculty to help with the budget problem is to teach more classes, for no additional pay, of course. Please understand, class size has already been doubled, and doubled, and doubled again…faculty have already had their workload increased dramatically, and there are no more auditorium-sized rooms to “teach” classes in.  Naturally, the governor’s suggestion has been laughed at, long and hard. After a century of demonstrating faculty don’t need to teach more courses to “help” with education, the Governor’s suggestion died in committee as a foolish solution to the Governor’s problems. Enough faculty had tenure, and tenure contracts, that it just couldn’t happen.

      That was six months ago, so now what?

      And…just like that, so much for promises and contracts, and the ability of faculty to protect higher education from being plundered. I gather some readers are thinking “that’s a shame, the poor faculty got screwed, but I’m not faculty so it’s not my problem.” I suppose it isn’t, but please, gentle readers, keep in mind, all government promises are subject to a simple change on a piece of paper. If you honestly believe your social security, or pension, is really safe from cash strapped governments, well, I’ve got some tenure track positions in Wisconsin to sell you…

      Back to the matter at hand, what else got approved:

    …also approved adding new limits to the faculty role in shared governance…”

     “Shared governance” is another unique, strange thing to higher education. In many legitimate institutions, governance is “shared” between educators that care about education, and administration. It’s been one of the things that’s helped higher education not to collapse so quickly; it really has taken a few decades of steady degradation to get to this point. Because faculty, legitimate educators, used to have power, they could at least slow down the drive for larger classes, less qualified teachers, and “cheapest possible education” at their institutions. Over the years, faculty power has been steadily whittled away, as faculty are replaced by minimally paid temp worker adjuncts. It’s why propositions like “25% more work for 0% more pay” are now taken seriously…faculty in most places just don’t have the power to defend themselves. Six months ago, in Wisconsin, the faculty were able to defend themselves, but no more.

      I really should point out that in bogus institutions, there is no shared governance. University of Phoenix, Corinthian, and most community colleges, faculty have no input whatsoever in education, not at a real level…it’s why these places are generally the pits of “higher education,” producing graduates with a surplus of debt and a shortage of skills.

      The governor, by hacking away shared governance (and I honestly don’t know why educators should share at all….), is reverting Wisconsin higher education to the status of the least prestigious, most infamous, institutions in the country.

     And faculty, the people who built the reputation of these institutions, can do nothing to stop it.

     The governor isn’t finished administering payback for faculty resistance:

 “…and procedures for eliminating faculty members in good standing outside of financial exigency…”
--emphasis added.

     There really is this belief that tenure means “job for life,” but this is just a myth. The tenure agreement has always been allowed to be broken for “financial exigency,” in other words, if the school is going broke. Administration has perverted the meaning of this many times, and used it to get rid of faculty that stood in the way of more educational plundering. 

      Still, it was inconvenient to always have to come up with excuses to rationalize financial exigency, and this bill allows faculty to be fired, to have that so called “job for life” contract shredded, on whims rather than financial need.

      Now let’s talk about what’s missing from the bill:

1)    Reigning in administrative pay, and administrative numbers. Imagine the huge reduction in overhead costs if campuses didn’t have legions of deanlings and 7 figure-a-year Poo Bahs ruling over them. The governor sure can’t imagine such a thing.

2)    Annihilating sportsball programs. Most sportsball programs are money losers…maybe taxpayer dollars for education shouldn’t be poured down money-losing pits that have nothing to do with education?

3)    Removing remedial programs and non-college work. Imagine the overhead savings by not pouring tons of money into programs that have long since been shown to be ineffectual. Make higher education about higher education, instead of pre-high school level work, and that’s more money that won’t need to be pointlessly spent. On many campuses, 90% of the coursework is remedial now…this would be a huge savings.

     Is the gentle reader wondering why these obvious suggestions aren’t considered? I’ll offer some reasonable explanations. First, most college administrative positions are political, and are generally filled by useless, unqualified people that merely have some connection to someone in politics; the Governor won’t kill his patronage system. Second, getting rid of sportsball is politically unpopular; the Governor is willing to lose the votes of all faculty in Wisconsin, but he can’t afford to lose the votes of everyone who’s ever attended a college sportsball game. Finally, remedial programs are massive cash cows for institutions: these are the students who are being aggressively exploited in higher education, sucked in, kept in the system for the longest amount of time, and paying in the largest amount of that sweet, sweet, student loan money, then spit out with nothing to show for it. The Governor doesn’t want to cut the money coming in, he wants the expense of even adjunct faculty to go down.

Goldrick-Rab said she passed up a center directorship at an institution in another state several years ago, fearing that shared governance there wasn't as strong as it was at Madison. But now she's actively pursuing opportunities elsewhere, she said. "I can’t work in an institution without genuine tenure protections and I will not work in academia without shared governance. We cannot protect students’ interests without it."

--seeing as your real name was in the article, professor, yes, you need to start looking elsewhere before the retaliation hits. “Protect student interests” is not the highest priority for administration, so what does the gentle reader suspect will happen to the students as the last meagre resistance to administrative wishes is crushed?

     By getting rid of tenure and castrating what little faculty power remains in Wisconsin, everyone in Wisconsin needs to realize that their higher education system has just been marginalized. Do you really think good faculty will consider working in Wisconsin now?

--considering faculty in higher education already live in a culture of fear, how are these changes going to make anything better? I guess next year I’ll be writing of the culture of terror.

     In times past, tenure and academic freedom were used to attract good faculty, which were necessary in order to attract students willing to work and pay in higher education. The student loan scam has changed the game, for the worse. Now, everyone can “pay” for higher education, so there’s no need to attract good faculty.

      The governor’s plundering of higher education is a good plan, at least for him. Today? He’ll get away with it, and it will take years, perhaps a decade, before the voters of Wisconsin will realize how their education system has been looted for temporary gain by a Democratically elected leader. By that time, Governor Walker will be long gone, replaced by a new governor. The new governor will say “Hey, this isn’t my fault. But look, we can just borrow the money from the pension funds to help our education system, and you voters are too stupid to realize what problems that will cause a decade from now when I’m out of office, too…”