Those who work and/or study at UW-Madison can be forgiven for feeling like pinatas. It’s hard to imagine more drama in one year. Like the sticks wielded by small children seeking easy loot, the blows came from many directions, sometimes seemingly all at once.
It’s also hard to imagine a clearer and more succinct summary of the year than that provided by Todd Finkelmeyer over at the Capital Times:
There are some who still believe, despite the evidence, that the split from the UW System championed by both Chancellor Martin and Governor Walker would have been a good thing, on balance, for the University. But as Finkelmeyer put it,
Although UW-Madison’s Faculty Senate ultimately voted to back the plan, there were plenty of faculty, staff and students questioning whether a split from the system made sense. And even if it did, most agreed fast-tracking such a significant proposal in a state budget was ludicrous.
Exactly. Enough said on that topic.
Superficially unrelated to the NBP fiasco but at least as traumatic in terms of lasting consequences was the news that UW-Madison campus alone will take a total cut of $112M in the current biennium as a consequence of both the regular budget process and a subsequent budget lapse whose impact is being felt disproportionately by the UW System. Coming at the tail end of previous cuts of similar magnitude under Doyle, it is impossible to argue with a straight face that these cuts can be accommodated by “cutting waste.”
Topping it all off was the effective 8% average take-home pay cut taken by UW employees as a result of the new requirement that state employees pay a significant fraction of health coverage and retirement contributions. These had previously been a recognized part of employee’s total compensation package, not gratuitous “freebies” as often derided by the proponents of this new policy.
I have sometimes been asked, “Why should taxpayers pick up the cost of state employees’ benefits?” My answer: “Why should taxpayers pick up any part of a state employee’s compensation? Maybe because they’re state employees? ”
The essential point too often forgotten is that, in terms of tax dollars spent, there’s no fundamental distinction between compensation in the form of salary and compensation in the form of other benefits.
You think public employees are overpaid? Fine, make the case for that viewpoint, if you can. But don’t do it by making artificial distinctions. The new policy amounted to an 8% cut in total compensation, period. Face the facts, and accept the consequences of that cut for morale, productivity, and retention at one of the finest public universities in the world.
2011 wasn’t all gloom and doom, of course. If you dig hard enough, you’ll kind find a couple of morsels of good news in Finkelmeyer’s report as well. But even if we make a drinking game out of spotting them, we won’t need to worry about designated drivers.
In closing, a prediction and a challenge for 2012. First, the prediction:
The political excesses and overreaches of 2011 will fuel (and is already fueling) a backlash like never before seen in Wisconsin politics. Among other factors, consider that a lot of very smart and energetic university faculty, staff, and students who were previously focused almost exclusively on their own research, teaching, and/or coursework have now been awakened to the tangible risks of political complacency. They will be a political force to be reckoned with in the multiple elections coming up in 2012, you can bank on it.
Finally, the challenge:
The Occupy movement that dominated the news of the last few months originated, at least by some accounts, right here in Madison. That movement, and the sometimes violent reactions to that movement, have upset the peaceful insularity of some American public universities. But with rare exceptions, the front line troops have been students.
Now, Prof. Henry Giroux of McMaster University argues compellingly that the time has come for faculty to join Occupy movement protestors on college campuses. Read here and decide for yourself. Also read about the depressing trends in public support affecting flagship public universities just like ours.
Then make it your New Year’s Resolution to participate as fully and as knowledgeably as you can in the battles that are now being fought over the future of public higher education, among many other issues.