My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
“The Legislature finds it in the public interest to provide a system of higher education which enables students of all ages, backgrounds and levels of income to participate in the search for knowledge and individual development; which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority … .”
That is how chapter 36 of Wisconsin’s state statutes begins in establishing the University of Wisconsin System. The relationship between the state and UW is clear. The state founded and financed UW primarily for the purpose of educating Wisconsin’s kids. UW has many subordinate missions and is a major engine for economic development in the state, but its primary purpose is, and has always been, to provide an affordable higher education for Wisconsin’s kids.
The statute does not, however, say how much the state taxpayers should spend on UW. That is a question that is answered every budget cycle.
Many taxpayers have become frustrated with UW because its spending priorities appear to be out of alignment with its primary mission. Before Gov. Scott Walker imposed a freeze, tuition had been rising much faster than inflation.
Meanwhile, professors are regularly replaced in the classroom with graduate students or adjunct staff, students are required to pay for seemingly useless courses and the money seems to be spent on just about everything except improving education for a reasonable cost. Taxpayers rightfully wonder why they must keep spending more of their tax dollars on a system that is becoming increasingly unaffordable while skimping on actual education.
This debate over the appropriate level of taxpayer funding for UW is the backdrop for Walker’s recent proposal to substantially cut that funding.
Walker’s proposal is to cut UW taxpayer funding by $300 million, or about 13 percent, in the next budget. Walker would also continue to impose the tuition freeze for the next two years. In exchange, the state would convert the UW system into a public authority, which would give UW much more autonomy, and fund UW with a block grant that would be indexed to inflation.
All things considered, Walker’s full proposal should not be passed into law.
In the short term, Walker’s proposal to cut funding and maintain the tuition freeze is a good idea. The $300 million is not chump change, but it is only 5 percent of UW’s budget.
Given how many Wisconsin families and businesses have had to trim back at least 5 percent of their budgets, it is not too much to ask for UW to do the same. Also, the continuation of the tuition freeze is good for Wisconsin families and helps to keep higher education more affordable.
The problem with Walker’s plan is in the long term. Making UW a public authority would make it much less accountable to the taxpayers.
The Legislature would no longer have the authority over most of UW’s decisions — including setting tuition. That would mean that UW’s unelected regents would have almost complete autonomy in spending over a billion dollars of state tax dollars every year — not to mention over the massive amount of state land and resources that UW possesses. The immediate threat would be a massive tuition hike in three years, but that could be just the start for an autonomous system spending taxpayer money.
It is in the taxpayer funding that the second major flaw lies. Walker is proposing to fund UW with a block grant that would be indexed to inflation. In other words, it would be a fixed pile of spending that goes up every budget over without the legislature having the power to change it. It would set the funding for UW outside of the normal budget debates as an entitlement that forever increases.
The two provisions combined would mean a virtually independent, unelected, organization would get to spend billions of taxpayer dollars without the taxpayers having input into the level of taxpayer funding, or the management of that funding, through their elected representatives.
That is not an idea that is good for the taxpayers of Wisconsin.
The Legislature should pass the first half of Walker’s proposal and toss out the second half. They should cut spending and maintain the tuition freeze, but maintain legislative control of UW and their funding.
Yes, it will mean that elected officials will have to continue debate the relationship between UW and the citizens of Wisconsin and, yes, it will mean that tough choices will have to be made. That is what we elect them to do.
(Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. His column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)