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Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos thinks that the no-confidence votes over the last several weeks at a number of University of Wisconsin campuses regarding the leadership of system president Ray Cross, were “a big mistake.”

Vos says that without Cross’ advocacy, “I might have eliminated tenure altogether.” As reported by Steven Walters in the Wisconsin Gazette, Vos “only agreed to let the Regents enact new tenure guidelines at the request of Cross.”

As to increasing future state appropriations, Vos “hopes” to keep the budget at its present level, but increases are “not going to happen.”

The subtext of Vos’ comments seems clear, Nice university system you got there, it would be a shame should anything happen to it.

Where power sits in Wisconsin is also clear, and it isn’t with faculty at their 17 member institutions. It also isn’t with system president Cross, or UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank who are cast as suppliants in this particular drama. Let us take note of Vos’ use of the personal pronoun when it comes to who holds control over the continuing existence of any form of tenure within the Wisconsin system.

While university faculty as a whole are liberal politically, the notion that this liberalism holds influence over anything important inside of public higher ed institutions in many states is…quaint.

It seems to me, for the most part, public higher education is dominated (as in having dominion over) by “conservatives.”[1]

We see a similar pattern in North Carolina where a politicized board ousted popular system president Tom Ross, replacing him with former Bush Administration official Margaret Spellings, and closed the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, even though state money did not support the organization.

In Illinois, funding for public higher ed has been frozen solid as Gov. Bruce Rauner engages in what he calls a “moral” duty to destroy public labor unions.

Arizona has reduced its spending on higher education by 41%, zeroing out its contributions to two community colleges entirely. Meanwhile, the libertarian Koch Foundation has stepped into the void, offering funding to Arizona State in return for favorable treatment of their ideas inside the institution.

Kentucky, Kansas, Louisiana (under Jindal), all have exerted political control through the power of the purse on their public higher ed institutions. Missouri’s legislature even intervened in the personnel matter of a single employee.

On a much smaller scale, in South Carolina, our legislature stripped $52,000 in funding from College of Charleston and $17,142 from USC-Upstate for the transgression of assigning books on homosexuality to freshmen.

I’m sure there are conservatives out there cheering, happy that someone is bringing the renegade leftists to heel. No doubt they feel that faculty started these fights, and what is being reaped has been sown by others.

If faculty started the fight, people like Robin Vos and Bruce Rauner are going to finish it.

Faculty at public institutions are hopelessly outgunned in this battle. As Vos’ comments demonstrate, at this point, it’s just a matter of what the political powers will allow the faculty to keep. Even if things change at the ballot box, as happened in Louisiana, the die has largely been cast.

I don’t expect conservatives to declare victory any time soon because the liberal professorate (labor unions, lamestream media, etc…) are a handy opponent in the battle for voter support – and thanks to some self-inflicted wounds, they are a juicy target - but make no mistake, conservatives have won an almost total victory when it comes to exerting control over public higher ed. Even a liberal state like California has a system that essentially runs on a corporate model, where huge swaths of their operations are effectively privatized.

Even if faculty are fifth column leftists, within our system of public higher education, they are almost entirely powerless where it matters, mustering meaningless “no-confidence” votes at best.

Now that Republicans have won (or nearly so in Illinois) these wars, the open question is: What are conservatives going to do to these institutions? Will they turn them into the New American University, a la Arizona State, where all new programs require partnerships with corporations like Starbucks or Knewton?

Will they be stripped for parts? Perhaps research that is self-supporting will be maintained, but everything else has to go? Though, in Kansas, the legislature is even threatening to reduce the state contributions based on a percentage of total operating budgets, essentially penalizing schools that bring in external funding.

I thought conservatives liked competition.

UW-Madison will perhaps be the object lesson. We will see what happens when a great flagship is asked to operate with reduced tenure protections and an increasingly smaller share of their support coming from the state. Madison has already seen significant defections of faculty and morale among those who work within the wider UW system has been obviously reduced. UW-Madison will no doubt survive,[2] but it has been permanently altered. Many would say diminished.[3]

I’m wondering, though, if some of these politicians have overshot the mark. After all, children of Republicans go to college too. Once divorced from the larger partisan political battles where higher ed serves as a proxy, will conservatives engage with the “conserve” part of their philosophy and question what it means to disrupt such enduring institutions in radical ways?

Robin Vos seems to be of the Conan the Barbarian school of conflict, “Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.”

It is not as though Republican legislatures are universally cutting funds for public higher ed. Solidly red states like Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah, are all among the leaders when it comes to increasing higher ed funding.

The difference in these states appears to be that because they are so solidly conservative,[4] (whereas many of the others above are varying degrees of purple) there is no proxy battle to be fought on campuses, so treating them as enemies to be defeated isn’t necessary for political expediency.

As usual, I wind up with more questions than answers. Maybe the route forward is to view those no confidence votes as the lamentations of the defeated and hope that people like Robin Vos and Bruce Rauner show a little mercy.

Regardless, it’s clear that conservatives have secured control of public higher ed. Let’s hope they’re good stewards.

[1] I’m putting “conservatives” in quotes because it seems to be a particular branch of conservatism that has enjoined this battle. The concentration of power in the hands of individuals (like Robin Vos), rather than being dispersed through the populace doesn’t jibe with the conservatism I grew up in.

[2] The regional campuses with smaller footprints and endowments might have a different, far worse outcome.

[3] I have to comment on another irony here, that the political control of public higher ed has increased, even as state contributions to institutional budgets have decreased. Even though state contributions are relatively small, budgets are so tight that even losing the 8-15% that comes from the state would be crippling.

[4] Several of these states have also been the benefits of the fracking/natural gas boom which has aided their state’s bottom lines. Still, if higher ed were truly the enemy, wouldn’t they still subject the institutions to austerity?

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