Public Values

Wisconsin university playing privatization trick — Peter Rickman

Budget approval that would legislate "Badger Partnership" looms.

Rickman: Positive words used to cover up attacks on democratic accountability and worker protectionsby Peter Rickman

February 2011: The powers-that-be in the state are talking up a new plan for the University of Wisconsin-Madison — a plan that would mean higher tuition, erosion of union and worker rights, compromised access to affordable and quality public education, more corporatization of education, and less democratic accountability to the public. Last fall, University of Wisconsin Chancellor Carolyn "Biddy" Martin unveiled a set of principles for a new business model for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She called it a market-based approach to operations and governance of the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin System.

The Chancellor leaned upon a growing consensus among higher education administrators and corporate executives about the role and nature of public universities as market actors best run by market ideas. However, Martin's set of principles, emerging at a time when a new state government advocates austerity for all public institutions, met resistance from workers and students on the Madison campus.

The plan, not yet fully developed, sits in the hands of a University workgroup, Republican leaders in the legislature, and Governor Scott Walker.

Secret Meetings

On the heels of secret meetings conducted by University administration with leaders in the corridors of power of education, business, and politics, Chancellor Martin rolled out a vague proposal of new principles for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

These meetings took place outside of the statutorily created structure of "shared governance" with faculty and students and the mutually agreed-upon structure of labour-management procedures with workers on the campus.

Words like "autonomy" and "flexibility", usually voiced by corporate titans and their acolytes, dominated the public statements and documents describing the Badger Partnership. While these words out of context evince positive connotations, as deployed throughout the world, they provide cover for attacks on democratic accountability and worker protections. Union-busters and those who would slash an already meagre social wage of public benefits and public institutions use these very same words when attacking workers, students, and their movements for social and economic justice. In the words of outgoing American Federation of State, Council, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 171 President Randy Brink, "We've heard these words before, and they don't mean good things for unions and workers."

Upon becoming aware of the expressed and implied content embedded in the Badger Partnership, both students and workers in the University community expressed concrete concerns about the likely impacts. While steadily decreasing state funding of the University leaves UW-Madison increasingly reliant upon private donations and skyrocketing tuition, the proposal leaves off the hook a state government evidently unwilling to support a world-class institution of higher education for Wisconsin's working families.

Teaching Assistants' Association, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 3220, President Alex Hanna says, "The UW has allowed state government to put more of the costs of education on the backs of students while allowing greater private influence over academia from the money they pump into universities."

Students, Workers Take Hit

Martin openly advocates for further dramatic tuition hikes as part of her plan. Changes in contracting and procurement procedures proposed by the Chancellor, removing the University from the state system and threatening jobs beyond the campus, open the door to graft and cronyism without accountability. Further, the Chancellor's proposal supports lifting requirements on the University for the number of Wisconsin students to be enrolled, as Martin seeks the increased tuition revenue produced by out-of-state and international students. According to UW undergraduate student and Student Labor Action Coalition member Beth Huang, this means that "fewer Wisconsin families will have access to affordable, quality public education."

Alongside these dramatic and troubling changes to the University, the Chancellor's proposal would remove the Madison campus from the state-wide UW System and accountability to democratically elected officeholders. Under the proposal, authority and oversight of the University of Wisconsin-Madison would reside with the Chancellor and a corporate-style board of trustees. Appointments to and membership of the board have yet to be articulated in any plan.

De Facto Privatization

Some call Chancellor Martin's Badger Partnership a de facto privatization of the University. Even while she protests that she does not seek privatization, critics say that the implications of the proposal indeed amount to privatization because the University of Wisconsin-Madison would become a state-subsidized entity without democratic accountability to state government and responsible for raising its funds from private sources like tuition and gifts. While privatization concerns many, the shift from a public university serving the public good to something else unstated troubles even those who do not call the proposal full-scale privatization.

Potential changes to union and worker rights perhaps concern labour activists most of all. As the Badger Partnership represents a set of ideas to be implemented by the state government, majority Republicans and Governor Walker will retain authority to eliminate civil service protections and collective bargaining rights as they draft and enact legislation. Thousands of union-represented workers, from blue-collar to professional to academic labour, could see their right to a union ended under the guise of personnel "flexibility", further threatening good union jobs for all Wisconsinites. AFSCME Local 2412 President Gary Mitchell calls the threat "real", saying that "politicians like Scott Walker want to get rid of unions and this gives him an opening to do that".

The Badger Partnership emerged in the context of a rising chorus of elite opinion-makers advocating more marketization of social and public life. Traditionally, public institutions and the labour movement provided the great countervailing powers to the influence of corporations and wealth. As the ideology of "neoliberalism", the predominance of unrestrained market forces on all aspects of social life, battered trade unions, and the state, the power of wealth and corporations increased over the past few decades.

Of course, part of the context for the Badger Partnership also includes the unprecedented attacks on public institutions, workers, and their unions by a new Republican state government. Governor Walker has expressed support for the concepts embedded in the Badger Partnership while also declaring separately his intentions to massively slash state funding for governmental entities, to cut taxes dramatically for high-wealth individuals and for corporations, and to erode or eliminate union rights for public and private-sector workers. The Badger Partnership simply reflects this right-wing agenda of compromised public institutions for Wisconsin families and eroded worker protections for good jobs.

Alliance to Fight Back

Amidst the rising calls for austerity for public institutions and growing attacks both on workers and students, an alliance of unionists and student activists from the Madison campus came together to share concerns and questions about the Badger Partnership. Participants in the alliance include leaders and rank-and-file activists from AFSCME Locals 171 and 2412, AFT Locals 3220 (Teaching Assistants' Association), 4848 (Wisconsin Professional Employees Council), and 223 (United Faculty & Academic Staff), the Student Labor Action Coalition, and additional student groups.

Agitation by this alliance resulted in the Chancellor and her administration slowing down the public advancement of the proposal and forming a campus workgroup to shape specifics of any concrete plan that might go before state government. However, as this group, loosely calling itself "Defend the Wisconsin Idea," continued its organizing around and analysis of the Badger Partnership, it decided to expand its work to confronting the austerity and attacks on workers and students.

In the face of impending funding cut proposals for the University from state government and attempts to erode or eliminate collective bargaining rights for public service workers, Defend the Wisconsin Idea sees its fledgling-but-growing campaign to protect a democratic, public university in defense of an expansive university community that includes students, workers, academics, alumni, parents, and citizens of Wisconsin. Further, the group sees its struggle as one part of the fight against a right-wing agenda that threatens all Wisconsinites, yet another battleground for working families under attack.

It believes that with key decisions on the proposals of the Badger Partnership residing with Republican elected officials while at the same time these politicians seeking to enact a right-wing agenda, Defend the Wisconsin Idea must build a movement of workers and students willing to take action to fight for democracy, equity, and justice for working people. After initial early victories and success in building the coalition, the group plans to escalate a campaign of political action and to organize students and workers in the University community and beyond.

With the authoritative legislation of the state budget set to be released in February and decided upon sometime in the summer, Defend the Wisconsin Idea will for months to come have its work cut out for it in confronting the Badger Partnership and the broader agenda of austerity and attacks on workers and students.

Peter Rickman is a member of the Teaching Assistants' Association, AFT Local 3220, serving as Vice President At Large of AFT-Wisconsin. He also works with Defend the Wisconsin Idea.

Links and sources
  Plan for "market-based" University of Wisconsin bad for students, taxpayers and the working class

Posted: June 15, 2011

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