The question Mike Gousha did not ask of Ray Cross

Last Sunday morning, UW System President Ray Cross gave a TV interview on “UpFront with Mike Gousha” concerning the recent no-confidence votes at six UW campuses. From the Cap Times writeup:

Cross said faculty members shouldn’t be worried about program closures or changes simply to meet state employer workforce needs. “We all are worried about the future,” he said. “That’s a concern and an anxiety. But no one is going to make an arbitrary decision to just close a program or to do that because, gee, we don’t have the need for that. We are comprehensive, multi-campuses. This university is a major institution in this state. And it must serve a whole array of needs. I sympathize with faculty and I understand their concerns, but much of that is predicated on their fears, not on substance.” [emphasis added]

But there is indeed substance to those concerns that President Cross either fails to appreciate or else consciously chooses to pretend doesn’t exist. Neither interpretation does much to enhance the confidence in his leadership that faculty at six UW campuses and the UW Colleges have already found lacking.

First, it used to be be entirely within the authority of the faculty to make programmatic decisions and to review proposed layoffs. Both roles have been stripped both from statute and from the Regent policy that was supposed to replace Chapter 36. What this means is that those far-reaching decisions are now left to the ultimate discretion of the politically appointed Board of Regents – most of whom have no higher education experience – and/or the administrators that they in turn appoint. Moreover, the decisions cannot be appealed.

Whether Ray Cross is willing to acknowledge it or not, this is a Big Deal.

Second, President Cross’s assurance that faculty “shouldn’t be worried about program closures or changes simply to meet state employer workforce needs” rings extremely hollow in light of Governor Walker’s own deliberate attempt to replace statutory language concerning the University’s mandate to “search for truth” with the much narrower mission to, yes, “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

For the many faculty whose entire graduate training and subsequent careers have been focused on the “search for truth” in their respective fields, the prospective repurposing of their top-tier research institution as a glorified vocational school is, again, a Big Deal.

To summarize:

  • Faculty have been summarily stripped of their role in setting curricular priorities and in reviewing program closures or redirection, and that role has been passed instead to political appointees and their delegates.
  • Governor Walker and his supporters in the Legislature have already sought to explicitly redefine and sharply narrow the mission of the University to one of meeting the state’s workforce needs.

In light of both facts, a question that perhaps should have been asked of Ray Cross during the interview, but wasn’t, is this:

Other than your understandable desire to tamp down public anxiety about the future of the UW, on what substantive basis should faculty accept your assurance that they “shouldn’t be worried about program closures or changes simply to meet state employer workforce needs?”

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