A friend who lives in Wisconsin occasionally sends me items from newspapers in that state that he thinks will interest me. Most have obvious implications for other states–and since Scott Walker became Governor, those implications have tended to range from worrisome to terrifying.
The most recent news from what I’ve come to call “the frontier of shooting yourself in the foot” was a report about the University of Wisconsin’s loss of thousands of engineering students.
The story began by explaining why engineering is “more than classrooms and theory: It’s a hands-on discipline for turning ideas into prototypes and products that help people.” The university should have a number of advantages when it comes to attracting engineering students–most recently, it has used private grant funds to create an innovative “maker space” appealing to both in-state and out-of-state applicants.
Accommodating those applicants is a different issue.
There are roughly 4,500 undergraduate students in UW-Madison’s engineering sequence today. About 6,600 applied last year, including many qualified applicants from outside Wisconsin who could add to the state’s talent base.
The main barrier to taking more is a lack of faculty to educate more students without diminishing the quality of the experience for all. Private gifts help, but the core funding for faculty hires comes from state government support and student tuition.
As the article delicately puts it, those funding sources “haven’t grown.” That’s a rather massive understatement: the Walker Administration’s cuts to funding for the university can only be characterized as savage. In the wake of those cuts, and other measures inimical to higher education, the once-storied University of Wisconsin has seen faculty depart and rankings slip.
Walker not only engineered (no pun intended) an enormous $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, just when other state universities were finally emerging from the recession. He also proposed to get rid of academic tenure.
As one observer wrote at the time,
With his draconian budget cuts and his assault on the tenure system, Walker is sending a message that professors at Wisconsin should sit down and shut up. Some of them–those most able to move, which likely includes some of their best talent–might now be looking for greener pastures elsewhere.
An article in Slate a year later considered the consequences of these changes in funding and tenure protections. Several highly-regarded professors had left; others at risk of being “poached” were retained (at least temporarily) at a cost of some $9 million dollars in pay raises and research support. As the Slate article explained:
Academics, whether they have it or not, want some form of tenure to exist to protect the integrity of the knowledge that is produced, preserved, and disseminated.
Wisconsin professors simply do not want research limited by the whims of 18 people appointed by a governor with an openly stated anti-education agenda. And you shouldn’t, either. Think university research doesn’t affect you? You’re wrong. Hundreds of technological and social advances that you depend upon have been made thanks to the research of some brainiac at some university somewhere: what kind of cities to plan; how (and where) to alleviate poverty and hunger; what kind of diseases to treat; what kind of drugs to invent (or make obsolete); what kind of bridges and roads to build (and where). If professors are not protected from disagreeing with the agenda of their “bosses”—whether that be Dow Chemical, Gov. Walker, or President Trump—the consequences will go far beyond one person’s paycheck.
What is happening in Wisconsin is tragic: Scott’s vendetta against intellectual “elitists” is affecting everything from the quality of the state’s workforce to its reputation and its ability to attract new employers. Last year, the state ranked 33d in job creation–not dead last (Kansas has that distinction) but nothing to brag about.
What is happening in Wisconsin is also where Donald Trump and today’s rabidly anti-intellectual GOP want to take the rest of us. And that is truly terrifying. It’s relatively easy to destroy an asset; rebuilding it, and restoring a sullied reputation is a far dicier proposition.