The University of Wisconsin system has become ground zero in the Republican war against public higher education. Over the past several months, academics, politicians and journalists have pointed out the implications of the Wisconsin GOP’s draconian cuts to the university system’s budget and its vicious attacks on tenure, academic freedom and shared governance for higher education (public and private) nationwide.
As troubling as these implications are for higher education, it is crucial to be aware of the much greater implications for national politics, should Gov. Scott Walker prevail in the presidential bid that he announced this week. Walker’s authoritarian takeover of the University of Wisconsin system can serve as a preview of how he would govern the country.
By the time Walker signed into law his third biennial budget on Sunday, he and the Republican-controlled legislature had cut the UW system by over $500 million since 2011. The budget has frozen tuition — thereby preventing budget balancing through more tuition revenue — since 2013. It has also eliminated tenure protections in state law, passing tenure policy to the UW board of regents.
Before Walker came along, there was a clear wall between the politics of the ruling party and the people appointed to serve the interests of university students and faculty. But under Walker’s watch, the state government began to interfere. He has stacked the board of regents, which governs the university system, with lawyers and businesspeople eager to do his will. The regents appointed fellow Republican Raymond W. Cross, chancellor of the UW colleges and extension, as system president. Cross, who has never taught or served as an administrator at a research university, quickly appointed as staff advisers two Republican operatives, James Villa and John Yingling. Villa is a former Walker chief of staff and campaign aide; Yingling was a chief of staff for Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, a co-chair of the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee.
These appointments, along with those of Republican-aligned chancellors such as Rebecca Blank in Madison and Mark Mone in Milwaukee, produced an even more dangerous restructuring of the traditional separation of political interests and academic expertise. This new relationship between the administrative class of the UW system and the ruling Republican Party has eroded whatever remaining distance there was between state government and state universities, turning the university into an agent of the Republicans.
Walker’s party-line authoritarianism was in plain view at an emergency meeting of the University of Wisconsin at Madison faculty senate on June 9, where Blank repeatedly tried to persuade the packed auditorium that faculty should trust her and the board of regents to protect tenure, shared governance and academic freedom. When one senator protested that 16 of the 18 members of the board were the governor’s appointees, Blank placated him by saying the votes would be “subject to senate approval.”
Later that week, news came out that the Wisconsin Senate voted along party lines to approve Walker’s latest nominee, Mike M. Grebe, to the board of regents. He is the son of Michael W. Grebe, a former Walker campaign manager and the president of the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Blank’s confidence in the goodwill of the UW board of regents was immediately revealed as misplaced trust in authority.
Such blatant political quid pro quo should provide a stark warning to the American public about how power would flow in a Walker presidency. Academic and scientific expertise would be ignored in the face of corporate interests, and anyone who disagreed with him would be silenced or disempowered, just as he has done with labor unions, teachers and public employees in Wisconsin.
But as we were reminded by a recent AP article, the chain of power does not start with Walker. It has its roots in wealthy conservative organizations such as the Bradley Foundation, the various Koch family foundations and the American Legislative Exchange Council, among whose largest funders are billionaire brothers Charles Koch and David Koch. In an article for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Saul Newton, a student at the UW Waukesha campus, traces the Bradley Foundation’s war on the UW system back more than 20 years, when the foundation’s president at the time, Michael S. Joyce, accused the university of transferring “moral and spiritual authority away from civil society into the hands of the modern, centralized state” and insisted that “our common project must be to hasten the demise of progressivism.” Newton writes that Joyce prescribed doing so “by demolishing public institutions, specifically public education.” Thus it was to nobody’s surprise when Walker named Michael W. Grebe as his presidential campaign manager.
Equally chilling is that this Republican daisy chain extends to the day-to-day operations of the university, with system and campus administrators unafraid to abuse their government-authorized power down to the smallest incident.
I know from experience: Last month two armed, uniformed campus police officers paid me a visit in my office. They wanted to question me about a playful reference on Twitter to “armed insurrection,” which was brought to the attention of my administration by staff of the University of Wisconsin system. The officers suggested that my tweet could be taken as a threat and wanted to know whether I was planning any kind of violent intervention at the board of regents meeting being hosted on my campus later this week. Shockingly, I was not.
Since Walker took office in 2011, his administration has been a laboratory for executive Republican power grabbing. This unbridled power has included the legislature’s passing of Walker’s Act 10 reforms in his first administration, which stripped public employees of their bargaining rights; the recent passage of right to work laws; the evisceration of the state’s world-renowned Department of Natural Resources; and the ongoing destruction of tenure, academic freedom and shared governance. In every case, these political actions have involved reducing checks on executive power by public agencies, universities and especially the citizens of Wisconsin in order to pay back those who have spoken out against the governor and his policies.
We have seen in Wisconsin a preview of what the next stage in the evolution of Republican executive power would be, as Walker and his cronies have carefully coordinated the revision of state law in the service of executive power. Let us hope that American voters aren’t fooled into believing that a Walker presidency would be any different.