Conflicts of interest

There’s still a lot of protest and politics going on in Wisconsin, although the national attention has turned elsewhere. At least 8 state senators (5 Republican 3 Democrat) will face recall elections. The “collective bargaining bill” and our 6-8% effective pay cuts (by way of deductions for retirement and health insurance) are delayed by a court case.

One of the ugly elements of this struggle that has not been national news is the part relating to the University. Part of Gov. Walker’s infamous budget bill bomb was a restructuring of the University of Wisconsin to separate out UW Madison as a public authority. He had met privately with Chancellor Martin* to get her proposal, and included it in his budget bill along with a huge funding cut. UW System cried foul, as they’d agreed to bargain in a block and accused Chancellor Martin of bad faith — a claim she disputed, saying that the Governor had asked her not to talk to others and telling her that he would talk to the System people, and that the System president had also had private meetings with the Governor that he did not disclose to others. The Chancellor’s story sounds plausible to me — there is other evidence that Gov. Walker’s plan was to take all opponents by surprise with a blitzkrieg.

Politically, Walker’s agenda is pretty clearly to sow dissent among those who would otherwise be united in opposing him. I don’t think even Republicans are arguing that the inclusion of the proposal in the budget bill was a good-hearted effort to do what is best for the University. They way it was done was obviously calculated to embarrass Chancellor Martin.  However, Chancellor Martin and a lot of faculty do think that the public authority is something they have wanted and worked for for a long time, and support the bill.** Other faculty are lining up against the bill. Some argue that the whole public authority idea is a bad one, and basically argue in favor of continued populist control of the university. (It is my impression that most of these are fairly young, as I personally have a hard time imagining how anybody can say with a straight face that the rules we’ve been living under could possibly be good for us, but there are some older people who say this who seem to be guided primarily by ideological principle.) Others who basically agree about the need for a different structure argue that the proposal isn’t the right one to go to, that a major restructuring at this moment in history would put too much power into Governor-appointed regents who cannot be trusted to defend academic freedom and other moral virtues. Former chancellors and provosts are coming out on different sides of this issue.

All of these discussions among faculty are occurring in an extremely dangerous and conflictual political context in which the one thing that is certain is that there are few in state government who have the university’s well-being as much of a priority.

Some background. In the 1970s, the University of Wisconsin – Madison was merged with other state colleges and universities into the University of Wisconsin system. The system includes a half dozen universities and another half dozen two year schools. There are a scattering of vocational master’s programs around other campuses, but only Milwaukee and Madison have PhD programs. There are longstanding grievances among UW-Madison faculty about our status in UW System and our treatment in state government, with many older faculty feeling that state resources have been unfairly diverted from Madison to other campuses and that the state government has materially hurt UW-Madison with politically-motivated meddling from the state legislature. Among the things that have particularly galled me are having our raise pool explicitly voted on in the state legislature, having the legislature successfully mandate the creation of new programs and so-far unsuccessfully threaten to abolish others, and having the legislature on three different occasions that I know of (and possibly more than I do not know of)  seize money from a  university account that had been set up as a no-state-tax-dollars-involved profit center and put it in the state’s general revenue fund. University budgeting has become defensive and obscurantist as a consequence — money cannot be accumulated into any kind of reserve for fear of seizure, and bookkeeping becomes an exercise in money laundering and money hiding to prevent the state legislature from finding it. Also we get to be a political football. In previous years, when the legislature was of a different party from the governor, it was common practice for one side to try to “get” the other by throwing a political bomb at the university.

As I have debated this issue with grad students (who are mostly lined up in opposition to the plan), I have been trying to unravel the threads of interest involved. The students tend to emphasize concerns about tuition. Issues of access and affordability are real ones. They are issues now, as state funding continues to decline. All predictions about how this issue would play out under different structures are entirely hypothetical. One group argues that to change from being a public university is to give up forever on the idea of more tax dollar subsidies for tuition. Another group argues that the only way to increase affordability is to raise tuition simultaneously with raising financial aid — effectively to charge a sliding scale that depends on family income; people who advocate this disagree about which structure is most likely to do this. As that is all hypothetical, that particular debate is solely one of opinions.

But the whole tuition debate — one I am sympathetic to as a progressive — cuts entirely differently from the issue of what is good for an elite research university. If my goal is access to high quality education for youth of modest means, wouldn’t I just stop funding an elite research university entirely? Wouldn’t that access goal be better met with an institution staffed by lower-paid faculty teaching three or four courses a semester than by an institution staffed by higher-paid faculty whose major interest and time commitment is to their research/scholarship? The trend at elite schools is toward inequality: higher and higher salaries for the high-performing research faculty, and more and more teaching done by lower paid adjunct faculty.

One core value question is whether you support the idea of an elite research institution or not. Should there be major public research institutions at all?  And if so, what does it take to maintain them? Can an elite research university survive with an egalitarian ethos in the face of competition from the unapologetic elitist private institutions? The “public” schools that are thriving  that I know of have gotten some kind of independence from their state government oversights. Are there any models out there of thriving public elite universities that have not half-privatized? Chancellor Martin thinks this change is needed for UW as a research university. Political critics here argue that this allows for growing corporate control of research. The trouble is that that train has already left the station. There is essentially zero state funding for research. Research funding is federal, or corporate. As public money — both state and federal — have declined, the university has been increasingly reliant on private donor fundraising. Read corporate influence. That is happening now, has been happening for the past twenty years. Public money dries up, corporate money fills the void. This is a real issue, but debates about the current bill (in my view) are irrelevant to it.

To the graduate students reading this, I ask you: are you advocating the end of research institutions and the idea of graduate training that is associated with them? Just where do you think graduate school is going to come from, if not the elite research institutions? What exactly is your model?

Another interest group — one whose interests have been glaringly absent from all the public discussions — are the staff of the university. They are currently part of the state civil service system and are mostly unionized, except for managers and some professionals. The bill calls for “flexibility” in staffing, and is utterly silent on what that would mean for staff. In the short run, I think they are supposed to be guaranteed to stay in the state retirement and health care systems, but I know nothing about what would happen to the rules about bidding on jobs, job security, etc. It is not clear what would be good for them. Private universities do not have a good track record for treatment of their staff. If I were staff, it would look to me like a possible choice between the frying pan and the fire.

I find myself getting angry at students who are organizing anti-chancellor rallies around simple-minded slogans about tuition or privatization/corporate influence that seem to me to be more oriented to building up their sense of themselves as radical activists than to any real interest in what is actually happening at the university. This is doubtless unfair, as I think many students are scrambling to get themselves up to speed on this tangle of issues. And, I remind myself, we don’t all have the same interests. For that matter, my own interests are conflicted around these issues, and I suspect many students are in the same boat. In a very complex, volatile and dangerous political environment with a lot of different interests and interest groups, it can be very difficult to chart the best course of action.

*I am pointedly calling her Chancellor Martin and not Biddy because I see some sexism in the way her first name is used where just the surname would typically be used for a man in her position.

** It seems pretty clear that the faculty or regents who wanted this change were the ones who gave Chancellor Martin her “marching orders” three years ago, and that she did not have enough background to be able to plug into the diversity of opinion on the campus. She ran into a buzz saw a couple years ago around reorganizing how campus research is administered, where it was evident there were similar problems.


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

2 thoughts on “Conflicts of interest”

  1. The access/excellence mantra that is chanted religiously at public universities obfuscates the very real conflict between the two goals–as you point out above. When you make the production of knowledge a goal for a campus, you have to squeeze, compromise, or spend spend spend to serve the same teaching goals. (A professor who teaches four courses a semester and holds a dozen office hours is going to spend less time conducting research. A professor who teaches two courses will reach fewer students and/or teach very large classes.) And serving either the research or the teaching mission well costs money. Of course, anyone can walk onto any campus and find things they think are wasteful. In real life, however, universities exist to preserve old stuff without much market value at the moment (I’m glad we have a classics department) and cut corridors for new stuff that we can’t yet imagine.
    Tuition is one source of that money, and the high tuition/high aid model erodes support for state spending.
    Government funding is another. The states don’t do much on funding research–although CA does better than WI. Most federal institutions that fund research have been level funded since the Bush era, resulting in the real loss of a substantial part of a generation of scientists who can’t start their own research careers. But populist democratic control doesn’t tend to fund research that’s hard to explain. (Recall that candidate Sarah Palin disparaged research using fruit flies, suggesting that such pursuits were esoteric rather than foundational.)
    My one quibble with your entry is the claim that corporate funding steps in when government/foundation funding falters. Not quite. Corporate funders are more interested in quick applications than funders of basic research. This makes sense, of course; they operate to make a profit. But the foundational work that allows rapid progress later on–and the higher risk stuff that sometimes leads to big breakthroughs–can’t be sustained through corporate funding. Examples: moon projects, human genome, etc. are all the product of substantial government investment. Afterward, private interests can build on the science they developed and make profits–as well as useful products. But government has to ante up to make the whole thing work.

  2. Excellent point, David, and you might want to make the comment over on Scatterplot, where it will have a bigger audience. Because I think this is a debate sociologists ought to engage.

    On your point about corporations vs government in the funding of basic research, I think you are right. I’m not sure what the story is with “donor” funding of science institutes and such. But it seems to me that that problem is true for both public and private universities.

    I am worried very much about the future of public universities and this is one part of the worry.

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