Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

Walker’s UW Cuts Get National Press

It’s probably helping his presidential run, but also raising questions about Walker as a person.

By - Feb 18th, 2015 10:52 am
Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-12.

Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-12.

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.

The story also suggests Walker could meet with tremendous opposition to the cuts: Michael Fahey, managing director of the UW-Madison alumni association, told the Post he is reaching out to the university’s 400,000 alums around the world. “We know that Wisconsin alumni represent the full spectrum of political opinions, but we have been pleased that alumni are eager to lend their voice to the campaign,” Fahey said.

“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, 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.”

Evans offers some poignant stories of students moved and thus engaged by content presented in a history class. She make a very important point about education, that it has an emotional content that can help it connect in powerful ways to students. College is a time when young adults are discovering who they are, and when the best teachers, simply by making their instruction come alive, can have a powerful impact on students. That’s one reason so many of us remember college days so fondly.

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.

21 thoughts on “Back in the News: Walker’s UW Cuts Get National Press”

  1. Rich says:

    The issue, Samuels notes, “is likely to play well with conservative voters who see universities as… hotbeds of left-leaning activism.”

    The numbers appear to support it. Education beyond high school applies to less than half of the (appropriately aged) population and bachelor’s or better (like you’d get from a UW Madison) is on in the 30% range.

  2. AG says:

    Bruce, why do you push the “13% budget cut” figure? If you take half the cut proposed you come in at 2.5% of the total UW system budget. I understand you have an agenda to push here, but keep it factual. 13% cut from general purpose aid funds is at least a bit more accurate… even if still misleading.

    Regarding the cuts themselves, I’m not a fan of blatant across the board cuts, but can anyone honestly tell me that there is no waste in the UW system?

  3. bruce murphy says:

    Good if technical point, Andy, I changed it.

  4. lufthase says:

    Comparing Walker’s cut to the “total UW System budget” is meaningless. Over 60% of the “total budget” has strings attached and is beyond the Regents’ control. Federal Direct Loan dollars that are merely passed-through to students also count towards the “total budget.” Walker’s cut should either be compared to prior state aid (as Bruce does here) or to the General Program Operations Budget (roughly, State Aid, less Debt Service + Total Tuition).

    For those seeking more context on UW funding over the last couple decades, I suggest this spreadsheet:

    It’s interesting to note that while state funding has been trending downward for quite some time, Walker’s 2011-13 budget was the first where total tuition dollars surpassed total state aid.

  5. Terry Ott says:

    I wonder if Gov Walker has himself made the talking point that Samuels refers to: “The issue, Samuels notes, ‘is likely to play well with conservative voters who see universities as… hotbeds of left-leaning activism.’”

    Perhaps he has made that point, and numerous other commentators on the right wing make it regularly. I think Samuels assertion is correct in terms of the conservative reaction. No doubt Walker sympathizes with and agrees with that characterization. But it seems to me that Walker hangs his hat on the assertion that the UW budget is bloated with wasteful practices and marginally valued activities and in some cases light workloads for the employees of the system.

    I’m far removed from that scene now, but my PhD wife WAS on the faculty there ten-plus years ago and I interacted socially with her peers. It sure seemed to me, with my lowly Masters Degree also as a point of reference, that it was anything BUT a tight ship. As a taxpayer and a former tuition payer (two children are graduates, and the third attended but transferred out), I have to side with Walker until I hear convincingly otherwise.

    In my experience re: private sector downsizing, the way certain operations/functions are spared is to proactively weed out the deadwood, to insist on high levels of performance, and to analyze (question) how much value is being delivered through that operation or function, versus there being a lot of “status quo” thinking and protection of sacred cows. I’d like to see evidence that UW is operated that way.

  6. David Ciepluch says:

    I obtained an Associate Degree and MATC, and Bachelors and Masters Degree from UWM. It is proven that higher wages and income are more possible with higher levels of education. All education including apprenticeships, on the job training, seminars, workshops, conferences, life learning, have value personally and professionally.

    My understanding is it would cost each taxpayer $5 annually to plug this budget cut Walker wants to make so he can provide another fat tax break to his benefactors like the Koch’s. I would gladly pay more since education is so valuable in our society.

    Walker got to be governor without the benefit of an education, and by being corrupt, deceitful, bigoted, divisive, a proven liar more than 75% of the time, and implemented laws from ALEC written for the benefit of corporations. His self-proclaimed Masters Degree is a major in corruption and the politics of fascism. He will say and do anything and is a very dangerous shrewd politician.

  7. Mary says:

    As Terry stated, he is “far removed from that scene now,” that scene being the University of Wisconsin system. All of Terry’s opinions are based on anecdote, and I would agree with him that they are outdated. He also neglected to mention that the cuts Walker is suggesting don’t just affect the University of Wisconsin Madison.

    I live in a rural area whose largest town is the home of a two-year UW campus. In the past, the core faculty were largely PhDs. After years of teaching and research, they became tenured faculty that not only taught students but also were important members of our community. They were active in churches, services clubs, and continuing education classes at the university. The history professor did valuable research on our local history and as an emeritus professor continues this research with our local county historical society. The business/economics professor used his training to provide economic impact studies for our community. He also taught Spanish as a Continuing Education class through the UW Extension. This was “The Wisconsin Idea” in action. By the way, for an affordable cost, many students went on to four year campuses and found jobs in Wisconsin and beyond.

    Due to continuing budget cuts–particularly within the last four years–there are very few core faculty members left. Most of them nowadays are Ad Hoc and commute from up to 100 miles away to teach one or two courses at our campus. Although this might be more “efficient,” it has affected significantly the quality of campus education and the quality of our community. There have and continue to be many more efficiencies. For example, the dean continues to recruit international students, who pay higher tuition.

    That is my anecdote to add to Terry’s. I’d like to add that my husband and I are both UW grads, as are our two children. We all have had and at the moment do work in private sector jobs, and to continue my anecdote, we have not found that the private sector is necessarily more efficient, and efficiency does not necessarily add value. As for downsizing and all the “value” it can deliver, Terry is perhaps unaware that the UW campuses have been downsizing plenty. As a taxpayer, you get what you pay for. I have personally had my fill of people offering personal anecdotes as “proof.” Certainly Masters and PhDs can and should do better. Scott Walker was bored with his university experience, and rightly decided that you can be a politician without a bachelor’s degree. If Terry would like “evidence” that the UW, after these recent years of belt-tightening, is not wasteful and doesn’t have too many sacred cows, I would suggest that a “blue ribbon commission” rather than an ambitious, partisan politician is the one to do the job. By the way, just to complete my anecdote, I am a taxpayer and former tuition payer.

  8. AG says:

    David Ciepluch, I’m going to assume your rant means that you believe that everything the UW system does actually creates more value than is put into it and operates it’s budget as well as it possibly can?

    It’s hard to tell… since your posts lately have become more and more like the rantings of a “WCD of the left.”

  9. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Across the country, both Left and right are outraged by the U systems, colleges 40 year push to pork up their budgets and then stick it to the kids in the way of forcing them to go 5 years and take on big debts, screwing up their lives and the economy. There is 1.2 trillion student debt, 11.3 % behind on payments. This bubble could really nail us.
    Look at the increases in tuition and spending it the U system in Wisconsin? Almost ten times inflation.
    To Whom does this system belong? Students, Taxpayers, parents or the staff and administration. If it belongs to students it is time for Cross and Blank to forget the politics and come up with answers and solutions as we are now in the 21st Century not the 19th. Time to dump 1/3 of administrators and dopey degrees.

  10. lufthase says:

    WCD- You’re right that tuition (and student debt) is out of control, but the major force driving this is declining state aid. Looking at tuition in a vacuum doesn’t get us anywhere.
    Indulge me in some math…

    In 2000-2001 (Thompson’s last budget) state aid to the UW System was $1.423B in 2014 dollars.
    In 2014-2015 state aid is down to $1.178B; a difference of $245M

    In 2013-14 (most recent available), Total UW System revenue from in-state undergrad tuition was $884M.
    See pg. 22,

    If, instead of cutting, Walker restored state aid to Thompson-era levels and earmarked the $245M increase for tuition relief, Resident Undergrad Tuition could be reduced by about 28%.

    Also, I agree that there are too many six-figure Chancellors/Deans/Directors/etc., but Walker’s proposal does nothing to address this. Under the current set-up the legislature could (but has not) clamp down on administrator pay by statute. If you spin it off into a public authority and give the Regents more power, you take away this potential leverage and administrator pay will only get further out of whack.

  11. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Naturally you missed the biggest point, the increase in total spending of the U system in last 50 years. That is why the state aid is declining and why the U systems across country are out of control feasting on student loans and making them go 5 years.
    They added all kinds of dopey degrees on to get more loan money and now they are in mess. Students are deep in debt and U systems do not even bother to address the problem. All they do is whine, cry, excuses and blame someone else. Compare their total spending to the inflation rate the last 50 years. No excuses for tuition to go up 65 times what I paid..

  12. Terry Ott says:

    Mary, I agree it would be helpful to have your suggested “blue ribbon commission” in order to get the benefit of the most insight and analysis. Meanwhile, how do you evaluate what UW System President, Ray Cross, has to say?

  13. lufthase says:

    WCD-Why would increased total system spending drive down state aid? I don’t follow you.

    Most UW funding is siloed-off. If a researcher gets a $1M federal grant for cancer research, that adds $1M to the system budget, but it can only be used for that research. It doesn’t impact state aid or tuition one way or the other.

    Anyway, on the 50 yr tuition increase:
    Madison in-state undergrad annual tuition:
    1965-66 = $325 = $2,443 in 2014 dollars
    2014-15 = $9,273 …so tuition has outpaced inflation by 3.8x

    I’m sure there is opportunity for efficiency at the margins, but the there are two main drivers here:

    (1) In 65-66, your tuition only covered 27% of the cost of your education. As state aid has been cut over the years, the burden has shifted to students who now cover about 67% of the cost of education with tuition. See Table 4,
    If state aid had just kept pace with inflation these 50 years, students would be in much better shape, but they’d still be paying more than you did…

    (2) The cost of running a university system should outpace the Consumer Price Index. Things like electron microscopes, academic buildings, and nuclear reactor maintenance are not in the “basket” used to calculate CPI. And think of all the I/T infrastructure/personnel that’s required for a modern university system compared to what existed in 1965. In order to continue to provide a relevant education, the UW has to invest in all sorts of equipment and facilities and teach entire scientific disciplines that didn’t even exist in 1965. The budget for the Biomedical Engineering program or networking every building on campus going from “what’s that?” in 1965 to whatever it is now is necessarily going to outpace inflation. Maybe it shouldn’t outpace inflation by 3.8x, but go back to #1.

  14. Alysha says:

    This problem is way bigger and more complicated than anyone here really seems to see. As a current student, I will be the first person to point out waste and inefficiency- I abhor it. But, Walkers budget is only making the problem worse because of his typical clumsy approach. For starters, all this supposed “flexability” he yammers about is a moot point, because the WI authority (if approved at all) would go into effect July 2016, while this budget goes into effect July 2015. That’s not any flexability AT ALL, and combined with the fact that tutition is frozen schools are going to literally be starved.
    Tuition is not the only driver of student debt – books, segregated fees, housing, etc. are all equal if not larger problems. Some of those issues, like books can be mitigated by smart shopping, but seg fees are a huge money drain on students (seg fees, for those unaware, are used to fund various things like athletics, student life, orgs, union, etc), and those fees keep getting worse. Oh, just lower them you say? Well let me intorduce you to the little accepted issue no one wants to discuss. You’ve raised a greedy, spoiled, entitled generation. Too many students look primarily at a colleges amenitites – do they have every org under the sun, a great sports team, ipads to rent in the library, some kind of entertainment 24/7? Those things all cost money, and in todays competitive market, all the colleges are trying to cut spending while simultaneously keeping up with the Jones’. We can’t have it both ways.
    If Walker truly cared about WI he would leave funding alone, give the UW System the chance to craft its OWN authority, not one created by idiots in a capitol building who know nothing of what it is to be a teacher or student, and at most create a cap on administrative funding/pay. That would be tremendously helpful, and serve to not punish students who already work their asses off. Will the UW System ever be this uber effecient entity that conservatives dream of? No, hell no. When humans are involved, their is bound to be inefficiency, thats just part and parcel of this size organization. Please point out 10 comparably sized organizations/companies, who serve people as the UW does, that runs wth minimal waste? Theay don’t exist. The UW system as a whole is a massive asset to the state of WI, providing world class research in medicine, agriculture, engineering, music, humanities, etc. Why does it make any sense to destroy something that does so much good simply to further one mans political agenda?

  15. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Alysha no one is destroying anything, they have over billion in extra cash more than two years ago when the tuition was fixed. The U system have seen their spending explode once they figured out they could pork up their spending and pass it on to the kids in the form of loans, to the point where the amount of loans has actually changed the whole structure of society as kids coming out with big loans, few jobs, are unable to marry, buy homes, new cars get married have kids. All of this to feed the huge bureaucracy of educrats. The volume of loans is so big it is worse than the home mortgage bubble. do some research, do not believe al the crap they tell you young kids. Ask this: For whom did we build this U system? The parents, students, taxpayers or the administration bureaucracy? If it is for the students how come they have let this happen? When I was in pharmacy school in 62 the tuition was 110 dollars, now 65 times that much in 50 years. Why? Do not believe them, look at their spending and the stupid courses they have added on forcing kid to go 5 years/
    Do not let them off the hook, they are huge porkbarrels and when you pull all of those snouts aways from the trough you get lots of oinking.

  16. PMD says:

    UW has already had people take themselves out of contention for jobs because of the proposed cuts. This is what happens when the political party in charge is stridently anti-intellectual and believes dinosaurs walked the earth with humans 5,000 years ago and that global warming can’t be real because Boston got a lot of snow this winter. Sad to watch these clowns do their best to dismantle the UW system.

  17. Chris Jacobs says:

    When you have sociology professors making $100,000 a year at UW and teaching zero classes a year, you really should not be surprised there is a consensus that the university could take some funding cuts.

  18. Terry Ott says:

    Two factors that must enter into thinking about this:

    1. UW has more money stashed away to be spent than most people think. Depending on your information sources and the definitions used, the documented cash available is a half billion, up to $1.2 billion. Hardly “strapped” to meet educational and other high priority needs.

    2. UW spending is not managed with an eye toward getting “bang for the buck”. Top heavy with administration, sacred cows protected, generous compensation even for those with very light workloads. Yes, some faculty members are not compensated enough relative to their contributions. For example, when you added in commuting costs and money spent on materials, my wife lost money teaching as non-tenured faculty here, there, and everywhere wherever she could pick up a course or two.

    Major universities, public and private, are entities in the “Big Education” industry. They need to be managed that way.

    Lest you think we are “education skeptics”: we’ve paid for 46 years of advanced education in my family counting my wife’s and mine, 3 children, and three grandchildren whose were mostly financed out of my parents’ educational savings fund that my brother and I did not fully use due to our scholarships and part-time and summer work. All but one have a 4-year degree at this point, and two have advanced degrees (one PhD). Some years college costs were the largest line item in our family budget.

    UW needs to face up to the challenge of fulfilling its mission more efficiently. Higher productivity, more rational budgeting, tighter spending controls. It’s been a long time coming. Budget wisely and spend the excess before stashing more $$ away,

  19. Robert R says:

    1. Those $1.2 billion “reserves” are not freely available to spend. Even if the number is accurate, much of that money is earmarked for something specific, research or buildings, and can’t just be tossed in a general pool.

    You might have a point with 2., but the question of how much the UW system will save with new “flexibilities” is an important one. I very much doubt there’s $300 million in savings to be found. And, it’s important to note that the UW system is competing in a free market, not just for students but for professors and all sorts of labor in support services. Undoubtedly there are savings to be found, especially in administration, but nobody knows the size of the actual savings to be found, yet. As best anybody can tell, $300 million is a completely arbitrary number supported by nothing.

  20. Terry Ott says:

    Thanks for the reply, Robert. I agree the entire “$1.2 Billion” is not free of restrictions, but perhaps about half is (as I had said in my comment, awkwardly probably) . Clearly it is not totally a “slush fund” as it has been characterized by some. Moreover, I don’t know if the number has gone up or down since the last accounting cycle which, as with much in the public sector, seems to be agonizingly slow.

    My sense is that the existence of substantial unrestricted “reserves” (your word, probably a good one) were sort of camouflaged /hidden/obscured in the UW accounting system until a careful analysis turned them up. Am I wrong about that?

    Decades of experience in the corporate sector (from peon to executive, and then as a management consultant) tells me that until some serious pressure is placed on an organization to justify and provide the value-added analyses (cost/benefit tradeoffs, alternatives, etc) behind their budget requests there will be considerable excess. Call it fat, cushion, waste, or whatever … it’s a game as old as big business, which is what UW has become.

    And of course there is usually a late-year push to spend whatever was budgeted so that the next year’s budget is not questioned due to a prior surplus. Spend it or lose it; you know the drill. Clinton/Gore had the right idea with Zero-Based Budgeting, but then Monica showed up and Clinton/Gore lost their focus.

    How to guard against allowing financial waste and inefficient operating practices and processes? Well, ideally, the budgeting is done in a thorough, rational and collaborative way. But budgeting is a pain in the backside, so boring and unsexy. There’s always something else to do that’s more interesting and pressing. So the default technique is to draw a line and say, “this much and no more”; even if the line is just arbitrary, a leader knows it will have the effect of forcing those closer to the action to think critically about how to spend what they’re left with. And if they CAN come back and make a compelling case for “more”, in that year or the next, then they will.

  21. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    All of this debate can be summed up quite simply! Why have the the U systems let costs get completely out of control and tossed this porked up product on to the back of student loans? Mark Cuban has worked on this. Right now 1.3 trillion in student loans, 11.4% in default. A disaster is brewing, dwarfing the home loan mess started by the Clintons.
    For whom was this system built? Students, taxpayers, parents or the staff at UW?
    It is almost criminal the way the U systems have made the kids go 5 years for basic degrees while adding dopey course subjects, fancy new buildings and porking up their staffs.
    They dumped it all on us then whine when it is taken away. Th Economist, media, Liberals, Conservatives across the country, since the 2008 disaster have been asking this question and all I hear from Cross and co. is whining.
    They are far more interested in buttering their bread then they are about solving the problems.

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