UW de-merger: Epiphanies in Walker politics | Wis.Community

UW de-merger: Epiphanies in Walker politics

[img_assist|nid=45278|title=Sifting|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=238]More often than we'd like, modern politics -- polarized as they have become -- seem to be about reversals.

National Republicans including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) work tirelessly to un-do the Democratic Party's health care reform law, do away with Medicare and Social Security, and otherwise return the country to the non-egalitarian and laissez-faire policies of a century ago. They wring their hands about institutions that simply cannot be sustained, never minding their decades-long efforts to undermine the foundations of these same institutions.

But it's not like reversing these and other policies is all that drives Republicans. Mostly, Republicans are trying to reverse or retard Democratic-led changes. Limiting unemployment compensation and pushing other measures that experts argue will retard or do in the economic recoversy seems sensible only if you perceive the motive as making your opponent look helpless.

The proof of this is that health-care reform bill. Far from some socialist government take-over, it's mostly a market-based approach that drew heavily on earlier Republican ideas, which, as enactment grew near, Republicans discarded. In sum: It's only a good idea if we are the ones that make it happen.

Closer to home, another Republican, Gov. Scott Walker, likewise is all about reversals. He wants to erase collective bargaining, at least for public employees. He wants to tamp down environmental protections, further regress the once progressive tax code, retreat from local government autonomy by imposing more state mandates and more.

One of his most recursive moves, however, is his proposal to spin off the University of Wisconsin - Madison into an entity pretty much unto itself and no longer part of the statewide University of Wisconsin System. UW - Milwaukee might face similar detachment.

Except that this proposal, too, is not so much reform as deform. What most every observer fails to note is that -- like the formalization of public employee collective bargaining -- the current design of the state university system was decided nearly half a century ago, and by a Democratic governor.

Patrick J. Lucey took office in 1971 and promptly announced an "austerity" budget, which included a proposal to merge what was then the University of Wisconsin System with the Wisconsin State University System. Back then, UW had just three four-year campuses in addition to the Madison progenitor, plus a small number of two-year campuses. The state university system was much larger but smaller in prestige and research. Lucey's argument for merger? It wouild save money. One system would have more purchasing power and save money in other ways. There would now only need to be one board of regents instead of two, for example.

UW officials balked at this proposal, saying it would dilute the name of the institution founded as a major land-grant university and which was a member of the Big Ten conference -- never minding that the UW brand had already, if that was the right word, "diluted" itself with additional four-year campuses in Milwaukee, Green Bay, and at Parkside.

But Lucey persisted and, in a narrow vote, overcame Republican resistance. From Wikipedia:

Merger legislation easily passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly. After much maneuvering and lobbying, it was approved by a one-vote margin in the Republican-controlled Senate. It took until 1974 for implementation legislation to be finalized. "I had to be pretty heavy-handed – no merger, no budget," said Lucey in an interview following his term in office.

Now comes Walker, who argues that returning to the pre-1971 status quo by de-merging the state's university system will, contrarily, save money.

Now, times certainly may have changed but any reasonable policy analyst needs to ask in the modern context: Which is it? If it makes sense to reduce the size of, for example, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and if it makes sense to encourage the state's many units of local government to merge or otherwise share services in order to save money, how will two or three (counting a UWM split-off) state university systems in place of one save money?

Or is it more that fragmenting the large and powerful public university institution in this state will pay benefits to the party in power, among other narrow interests?

Like Republicans who want to reverse history, the UW System split-up is also about higher education officials in Madison who pine for the good old days. UW - Madison wishes to be treated as special, because it views itself as special. Well, it is special, but so are special-education students, and no one in the Walker administration proposes a boon for them. Wreaking general havoc and risking fiscal hurt to provide the best of all possible academic worlds may prove counterproductive. Not the least of the consequences will be much higher tuition for students that limits in-state enrollment -- exactly contrary to the "Wisconsin Idea" of a university that reaches out to many across our state. If you wanted to dumb down not only secondary but also higher education in Wisconsin, this might be part of your plan.

These days, if you're a UW - Madison power broker or a Republican officeholder, the unintended consequences of the proposal are brushed off, making both those centers of influence seem a lot more elitest than founders probably intended.

But the bigger issue is that our modern politics has an unhealthy and overriding concern wtih regression. If the other side was for it, your side should be against it. Period. No sifting and winnowing until truth be found, as the UW's famous plaque puts it. No performance evaluation (especially not in the case of vouchered private schools). No allowance for changes in demographics or economies or potential disruptions of long-standing institutions. No use of metaphorical scalpels where a chain-saw will do. Rather, just an abundant belief in tearing things down. The Wisconsin Idea has devolved into a new maxim: "If it ain't broke, break it."

ADDENDUM: I neglected to mention an issue that is real for the UW System, and that is the continuing micromanagement of the system by state government regardless of party. That micromanagement is driven by costs and to some extent the state's elected representatives have every right to inspect UW System spending and practices. But my nagging suspicion is that things have gone too far, driving the chancellor of the Madison campus and others to seek some release. But the law of unintended consequences pertains, especially in its impact upon students. Meanwhile, the proposal to split Madison off from the rest of the UW System may be put aside this term, according to Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. Vos commented Suinday on  "UpFront with Mike Gousha,” a public affairs program aired on WISN-TV (Channel 12) in Milwaukee.

Published

April 18, 2011 - 9:52am

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