Sifting and Winnowing – Guest Blog PostPosted: February 24, 2011
This is a guest blog post by former ASM Chair and current rally organizer Tyler Junger
Two days ago I, like every other person who’s enrolled in or works at UW-Madison, received an email from Chancellor Martin. In this message, she forwarded a memo from UW System President Kevin Reilly, Regent President Chuck Pruitt, and Regent Vice President Michael Spector. If you haven’t read it, the full message can be found here.
A few thoughts on that letter itself.
First, the two presidents and the vice president could have chosen to use some less obviously slanted language in their letter. Let’s dissect it just a little bit.
I suppose the most obvious place to start is with their insistence that releasing Madison from the UW System is a “radical departure from earlier statements about administrative flexibility and efficiency.” Let’s make this clear: Chancellor Martin never once promised that UW-Madison would remain part of the UW System. Quite frankly, she never had the power or authority to do so. As a matter of fact, System itself demonstrates this when they later say that the chancellor had “made great efforts to promote the need for new management flexibility [that] could be achieved without severing ties with the rest of the UW System.” Could those efficiencies be gotten without a separation? I suppose they could. But that’s not the hand we’ve been dealt.
From everything I’ve heard thus far, the decision to separate Madison from the rest of the UW System was made by the governor and his staff. It would be foolhardy for Madison to say that we wouldn’t accept the flexibilities that the governor was willing to write into his budget because they dealt with the uncomfortable subject of breaking with the UW System. As Adam Johnson has pointed out, without some way to use the money we have better, the value of a degree from UW-Madison will decrease substantially over the next few years. The reputation of an institution is incredibly easier to maintain than it is to rebuild. Every person who has a vested interest in higher education in Wisconsin should recognize this. Who would the Madison campus be serving best if they rejected the governor’s offer because of an uncomfortable decision made by him?
Back to the letter.
I’ll say for the record that the language is melodramatic in calling the release of Madison from the system a “fragmentation” of UW System, but that’s neither here nor there.
My next point of contention is whether a release from system would mean that UW-Madison is indeed “destined to compete against other UW campuses.” Isn’t it the case that they already do? Whenever UW System receives its allocation from the state, does anyone really believe that the individual institutions just sit on their hands and wait to see how the regents decide to divvy up the money? To be honest, that can’t be the case. To believe so would be utterly ridiculous. There’s already competition among the institutions to receive money from system. This is, in my opinion, a UW System power play in the most obvious sense; they don’t want to have their control over Madison taken away. I mean, the point is understandable. Why would anyone willfully give up authority over the institution that is seen, objectively (and I apologize for the Maditude inherent in this statement) as the most prestigious of all the UW System institutions? If I were a regent interested in keeping my ducks in a row, I’d completely agree. But I’m not.
Frankly, I hope none of the members of the board are. They weren’t installed into what’s seen as the crown jewel of the governor’s appointed positions because they’re greedy. I like to believe that they were put there because they genuinely care about public education in Wisconsin. I’ll get back to this after analyzing the letter.
Again I’ll say that System is being disingenuous when they say that “[t]his separation [is] a departure from the New Badger Partnership.” The core principles promoted by UW-Madison’s New Badger Partnership Working Group never said that maintaining connection with UW System was a core principle of the plan. The chancellor never promised that a release would never be on the table. Indeed she pointed to many different models of governance that other public institutions have changed to in the recent past as examples of what Madison could become – this includes the University of Virginia, which is the model closest to the public authority that Governor Walker proposed. As a side note, say what you will about the University of Virginia, but they were recently rated as the best buy among public universities nationally by the Princeton Review, and ranked second in providing “great financial aid,” coming in behind only the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts and beating out Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Yale (3, 4, 5, and 6 respectively.) Let me repeat that: the model that Madison would be closest to offers the best value of public universities in the country, and offers better financial aid than the private Ivies.
And now we get to my favorite part of the letter.
“[A] number of Regents have asked that we schedule a special meeting of the Board where this specific topic – separating UW-Madison from the other campuses – can begin to receive thorough public consideration.”
My first thought: why has nobody on the board thought of having this conversation before it was thrust upon them? Do we really expect the inertia of System to carry us through good times and bad? Why is it that nobody has begun to ask difficult questions in the face of consistent and predictable budget cuts over the last few years? Do we really need to just sit around, take our lumps, and raise tuition by 5.5% every year for every comprehensive institution, regardless of their individual needs or whatever circumstances they find themselves in? To me, it seems like the easy way out. And in my time in Madison, I have never been taught to take the easy way out.
Indeed, just the opposite is true. There’s no cause and effect relationship between easy answers and right answers. Sometimes you have to dig deeper. And our regents have failed to do that.
Here’s my second thought on this Friday’s meeting: there’s an 80% chance that it’s a complete sham.
UW System is pissed that Madison would even propose to be separate from the UW System. As I said above, such anger is understandable, but it is by no means acceptable. When the presidents and vice president say that the regents want to meet specifically on the issue of Madison separating from UW System, I think they’re hiding something. And that’s a problem.
Having been the chair of the ASM Student Council last year, I was necessarily familiar with Wisconsin’s Sunshine Laws – named as such because “sunshine is the best disinfectant” for government secrets (thanks for that one, Justice Brandeis.) The following is taken from Wisconsin’s 2007 Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide:
“Every public notice of a meeting must give the “time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting, including that intended for consideration at any contemplated closed session, in such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media thereof.” Wis. Stat. § 19.84(2). The chief presiding officer of the governmental body is responsible for providing notice, and when he or she is aware of matters which may come before the body, those matters must be included in the meeting notice.”
So is the following:
“In order to draft a meeting notice that complies with the reasonableness standard, a good rule of thumb will be to ask whether a person interested in a specific subject would be aware, upon reading the notice, that the subject might be discussed.”
Why is this important? Because I think the regents are pissed. I think System is pissed. And I think this meeting on Friday is being convened under false pretenses. I think that the meeting notice (which includes the following as the only non-administrative item on the agenda: Discussion: Potential separation of UW-Madison from the rest of the UW institutions) is intentionally vague. I think that there are regents who see this as an opportunity to berate Madison, berate our chancellor, and stop this process in its tracks because they were behind the ball. That is, quite simply, unacceptable. If the performance of UW-Madison or the performance of Chancellor Martin become items that are discussed at this meeting, and if President Pruitt had even an inkling that it would come up beforehand, he is bound by state statute to inform the public of that fact. It’s definitely a matter of public concern. Want evidence? Over the past week, there have been thousands of students fighting for the value of their degrees at the state capitol. And if the regents are trying to scuttle these efforts because they’re jealous, afraid, and unwilling to have a tough conversation, that’s going to hurt every student at UW Madison for years to come.
If that’s the true purpose of this meeting, I can guarantee you one thing – those students will turn right around. They’ll march down State Street, over Bascom Hill, and they’ll be standing outside Van Hise, ready to make their dissatisfaction known.
I hope that isn’t necessary. But just to make sure, I’m submitting an open records request to UW System tonight. I’m asking for all recorded correspondence between the three signatories of the letter to the Chancellor and the other regents and administrators in UW System that make even scant mention of separation or the Badger Partnership since January 7th. I’ll pay for the request out of my own pocket. And if there’s any evidence that this meeting was convened specifically to hurt Madison, you’re damned well going to hear about it.
I’m going to end by saying this: I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope the meeting on Friday really ends up being a frank discussion on the merits of separating Madison from System. It’s a tough conversation, I’ll concede that. But since when do we shy away from tough conversations simply because they’re tough? I’ll admit, the University of Wisconsin-Madison wasn’t part of the UW System back in 1894, but when did we stop asking tough questions and looking for tough answers?? When did we stop “that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing, by which alone the truth can be found?”