Walker’s UW Cuts Get National Press
It’s probably helping his presidential run, but also raising questions about Walker as a person.
Suddenly there are more reporters covering the Wisconsin Capitol. Now that Scott Walker’s run for the Republican presidential primary is being taken seriously, any major policy decision he makes is a potential story nationally. And a 13 percent cut in state funding for the UW System — by a college dropout, no less — is sure to get attention.
To “many Wisconsinites,” a New York Time story reported, Walker’s budget cuts and his attempt to excise the “Wisconsin Idea” from the UW System mission statement, were meant to send “a pugnacious message to… the conservative caucus voters of neighboring Iowa, the first stop in the presidential sweepstakes.”
To his critics, the story went on, “Walker is trying to capitalize on a view that is popular among many conservatives: that state universities have become elite bastions of liberal academics that do not prepare students for work and are a burden on taxpayers.”
Naturally, there was a Democrat available to amplify the charge. “This is a budget that serves Scott Walker for president, and it doesn’t serve Wisconsin,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). “He’s trying to appeal to the most conservative of conservatives, the Republican voters in early-polling states.”
While there’s little doubt Walker has made many decisions with an eye on his run for president, the Times didn’t really prove that “many” Wisconsinites believe this; the reporter seems to have gone only to Madison, the most anti-Walker place in the state.
The Washington Post also did a story suggesting the UW cuts are influenced by Walker’s national ambitions (which of course helps makes it a story with national interest). “It is unusual for a governor pondering a presidential run to take on what could be an all-consuming political brawl at home — and a distraction from the coast-to-coast travel and fundraising required to build a national campaign,” reporter Robert Samuels writes. “But the university budget debate has a clear upside for Walker, who is shaping his political brand around the idea that he does not shy away from a fight.”
The issue, Samuels notes, “is likely to play well with conservative voters who see universities as… hotbeds of left-leaning activism.” He quotes Walker, who compares this battle to one over Act 10, which all but eliminated public employee unions: “It’s very much like what we did four years ago,” Walker said. And the Act 10 battle helped get Walker tons of national coverage and political donations.
“Don’t underestimate the intelligence of Wisconsinites,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling told the Post. “They know this is fodder for a presidential campaign.”
Perhaps. But the Times quoted Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott L. Fitzgerald, who said “he had had very little response from his constituents so far” to the UW cuts.
Walker’s cuts also came in for some numbers crunching from the geeks at fivethirtyeight.com, who document the dismal trend nationally of cutting university funding and jacking up tuition. “Wisconsin, like most states, slashed spending on its public colleges during the recession. Between 2008 and 2012, Wisconsin cut per student spending by 19 percent after adjusting for inflation,” writer Ben Casselman notes. “That’s pretty close to the national average cut of 24 percent over the same period.”
But since the recession ended, “states have been restoring funding, albeit gradually.” While 42 states increased per student spending in fiscal year 2014, Wisconsin was one of only eight states that kept cutting as the economy improved.
“Walker says the latest cuts won’t come at students’ expense; he plans to freeze tuition for in-state students,” Casselman notes. But in fact, state cuts in spending always end up driving tuition higher: “In Wisconsin, the ‘sticker price’ for in-state tuition and fees — before the effect of scholarships, grants or other forms of financial aid — rose $1,530 between 2008 and 2014, after adjusting for inflation. State funding, meanwhile, fell $1,401 per student over the same period. Nationally, the states that cut funding the most have also tended to have the biggest tuition increases.”
The Times also ran a well-written Op Ed by Christine Evans, an assistant professor at UW-Milwaukee, that defended the Wisconsin Idea: “Walker’s action implies that Wisconsinites no longer share their parents’ and grandparents’ values. He suggests that a university system with a mission to ‘educate people and improve the human condition’ is no longer a priority here. He is wrong.”
“I teach history,” she notes, “a discipline that is always in the cross hairs of cuts designed to make a public university education more ‘practical.’ But my students have shown me that they find the study of the past very relevant to their lives.”
But it’s not clear the college classes taken by Walker ever had such an impact. Another story in the Washington Post on Walker’s days at Marquette University portray an indifferent student whose main passion seemed to be about running for office.
“He seemed utterly bored,” said Michael Fleet, who taught Walker a class on the politics of the Third World. Fleet told the Post reporter David Fahrenthold that “he’d hoped to get Walker into debates with the liberals in the room. But it didn’t work. Walker would only give occasional short speeches that made conservative arguments.”
“It wasn’t always on key,” Fleet recalled. “It wasn’t always in response to anything. He wasn’t engaged. It was like he came in with a script.”
Even then, as a dorm mate recalls, Walker was focused on the future, predicting he was going to become “the president of the United States some day.” All that national press is helping Walker — so far, anyway — get ever closer to that giddy goal.