A Playbook for Knocking Down Higher Ed

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The United States has had many education governors, elected officials who have touted their records on public schools and colleges.

Scott Walker, however, was the anti-education governor. Time and again during his two terms, the Wisconsin Republican made the state’s colleges, and those who work at them, political foils, criticizing them as wasteful and out of touch, challenging what was taught in their classrooms, and questioning their value. By the time he left office, in 2019, Walker had slashed college budgets, stripped tenure protections and university autonomy, and proposed gutting the Wisconsin Idea, enshrined in state law, that stresses higher education’s importance to the state and society.

Public colleges in Wisconsin still haven’t fully recovered. The current Democratic governor has managed to stave off further attacks by the legislature, but the approaching midterm elections may render him powerless.

Students and universities paid the price for Governer Walker’s legacy, said Thomas L. Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, and a Wisconsin native. “Wisconsin’s universities are really its crown jewel, and he weakened state assets.”

But if Walker drew national attention several years ago for his heightened antagonism toward higher education, today he has plenty of company. Across the country, Republican governors, state lawmakers, and politically appointed boards have taken aim at colleges. Iowa’s legislature has repeatedly tried to abolish tenure. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis — who, like Walker before him, harbors presidential ambitions — has imposed political litmus tests on faculty members, sought to cut public colleges’ ties to their accreditor after it asked questions about academic freedom at the University of Florida, and floated a plan to give state officials greater control over academic hiring and firing. In state after state, elected officials have tried to block professors from teaching about critical race theory or other subjects they object to, what one free-speech group has called “educational gag orders.”

Nationally, the picture’s not great. And in Wisconsin, it’s not greater.

It’s all straight from the Walker playbook, said Barrett J. Taylor, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas, who studied Wisconsin for his new book, Wrecked: Deinstitutionalization and Partial Defenses in State Higher Education Policy. “Walker went after higher ed to rally his base: ‘Universities were too liberal! Professors had too good of a deal!’ It was something to oppose,” Taylor said. “And higher ed is still a useful political tool.”

Conservative politicians have embraced higher education as a wedge issue, seizing on mistrust of colleges by a group of Americans: those without a degree, who doubt colleges’ societal and economic benefits, or who are suspicious of campuses’ cultural values — or all three.

In recent years, mistrust has hardened into hostility. Only 37 percent of Republicans in a New America survey released this summer said colleges had a positive effect on the country. Just two years ago, 61 percent of GOP voters had a favorable view of higher education.

The particulars of the attacks may differ from state to state, with the flashpoints reflecting the history, demography, or culture of a particular region. But the upshot is the same: Politicians are firing shots at academic expertise and threatening institutional independence. They are putting colleges on the defensive.

Wisconsin was an early salvo, one that underscores the difficulties that other public-college leaders could face as they seek to preserve their institutions’ autonomy and shield their budgets while asserting the case for why they warrant public trust. This fall’s hard-fought midterm elections could be decisive for higher education, and leaders can look to Wisconsin for lessons on parrying and absorbing partisan attacks. “It’s a harbinger,” Taylor said, “for the conflicts today.”

In Wisconsin, Walker lit a fuse. Now that spark has ignited a firestorm that could engulf colleges and the country.

Wisconsin was not alone in the vanguard of this clash. In Wrecked, Taylor also writes about neighboring Iowa; Arizona, whose attorney general sued the Board of Regents to try to block a tuition increase; and North Carolina, where a controversy over Confederate monuments on a campus cost the chancellor of the flagship, in Chapel Hill, her job.

But Wisconsin stands out for the severity of the blow struck by Walker and his allies in the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. And what happened there was not a single skirmish but a sustained standoff.

The fight began early in Walker’s first term, when he moved to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for state employees, including public-college faculty and staff members — who had only just won such workplace protections. The same year, 2011, he sliced $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system’s budget.

Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

At the time, lawmakers worried that state colleges had increased tuition too aggressively after the 2008-9 recession, and that institutions should have relied more on their reserves to hold down costs for students and families in tough financial times, said Jason Stein, who was then a statehouse reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In addition to budget cuts, Walker and the state legislature also limited tuition increases and later froze tuition.

Polling by Marquette University found that a large majority of Wisconsin voters favored the tuition freeze, although they were more divided about whether public colleges could absorb the freeze without reducing educational quality.

The impact of the actions by Walker and state lawmakers went further than rebalancing colleges’ financial books. For years, taxpayer support to Wisconsin’s public colleges had been above the national average; by 2019, it had fallen to 16.5 percent below the average, said Stein, who is now research director of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, an independent, nonpartisan think tank.

Over the Walker years, only three other states cut educational appropriations per student more deeply than Wisconsin did.

Nor were the tensions limited to budgetary matters. “It went beyond financial debates to a debate over what the university should be,” Stein said. “The controversies have been more cultural, ideological — about the substance of higher ed.”

Walker survived a voter recall related to his effort to limit collective bargaining. Re-elected to a second term, he began a frontal assault on higher education. In 2015, he proposed removing some tenure protections for faculty members, which in Wisconsin had been written into state law. His changes would permit professors to be laid off for budgetary or programmatic reasons, not just for cause. Another measure curtailed professors’ part in how their institutions are run, relegating them to an advisory role, rather than one of shared governance. “It changed the power dynamics on campus,” said Jon Shelton, an associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.

As a trade-off for budget cuts, Walker also recommended giving the university system greater autonomy from state regulations on employee compensation and benefits, procurement, and campus construction — a move that critics said could hand more power to a Board of Regents whose members he appointed. But perhaps the greatest uproar erupted when news leaked that the governor wanted to replace the university system’s public-service mission, the Wisconsin Idea, with language that emphasized higher education’s role in meeting state work-force needs. Walker quickly retreated from the effort, which would have required amending state law, blaming his staff for a “drafting error.”

“The ‘drafting error’ showed his hand,” said Shelton, who is vice president for higher education at the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin. The governor’s line in the sand was clear: The value of a college degree should be measured primarily by the jobs graduates get, and everything else — expanding knowledge, fostering an engaged citizenry — was outside its core mission.

Although Walker’s proposal to privatize the university system went nowhere, lawmakers approved his plan to remove protections for tenure and shared governance from state law. In a single legislative session, Wisconsin went from having some of the strongest safeguards of faculty rights of any public-college system in the country to doing more than just about any state to weaken tenure.

“Walker was a transformational governor,” said Chad Alan Goldberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and editor of an anthology about the Wisconsin Idea.

“In many ways, Wisconsin was an experiment in what can be done.”

Higher education has not historically been immune from partisan flare-ups. Campaigning for governor of California, Ronald Reagan ran on a pledge to “clean up the mess” at the University of California at Berkeley, a hotbed of student protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War. In the 1990s, conservative commentators agitated against the creation of multicultural and gender studies. President George W. Bush banned most federally funded embryonic-stem-cell research, drawing university research into the abortion debate.

Those critiques, however, typically focused on specific events, issues, or people, as Barrett Taylor and Brendan Cantwell, an associate professor of higher education at Michigan State University, write in a recent Review essay. Detractors’ beefs with higher education tended to be narrow and particular.

Over the past decade, their grievances have become more far-reaching. In Wisconsin, Walker didn’t simply denounce colleges for wasteful spending or high tuition rates. He castigated faculty members as lazy and unindustrious, leading to the creation of a searchable database that tracked the number of hours individual professors spent in the classroom. Under pressure from critics angered by student protests against right-wing speakers on the Madison campus, the Board of Regents approved a policy that imposed penalties for students who interfered in the speech of other people. And, of course, Walker questioned the very purpose of college.

His heirs have also mounted broader offenses against higher education. The incoming fire that colleges are taking is no longer localized, Taylor said. “It’s really a debate about what higher education is and who it is for. It’s become about the institution itself.”

The era started by Walker has also been marked by more direct intervention in the everyday activities of colleges. Governors, legislators, and boards have tried to wrest control of curriculum, campus speech, and governance from faculty members and institutional leaders. The Wisconsin speech guidelines, for instance, effectively took away administrators’ discretion in regulating certain student conduct, requiring them to suspend or expel those who violated the policy more than twice.

In North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees overrode the recommendations of a faculty committee and the university’s provost when it balked at offering tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an author of the controversial “1619 Project,” about the history of slavery. The University of Idaho warned professors to be “neutral” when talking about abortion, under a sweeping statewide abortion ban that went into effect this summer. “If it’s not clear where neutrality starts and stops,” one professor warned, “then they might be afraid to engage in those discussions at all.”

This new line of attack has been on the very idea of the university as an independent entity, one that operates free of partisan authority, Taylor said. What’s more, the incursions on institutional independence implicitly question whether colleges, and the people who populate them, are capable of running their own affairs. Raising doubts about their competency can undermine public confidence in higher education.

Christopher P. Loss, a historian of higher education at Vanderbilt University and author of Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century, notes that Americans have lost faith in institutions of all sorts in recent years, including government, the media, and organized religion. But trust is particularly important for higher education: Parents trust colleges to educate and care for their children, and taxpayers trust colleges to spend their money wisely.

“We’re a sector based on trust,” Loss said, “and there are consequences if our ability to hold onto that trust is eroded.”

People have historically put stock in colleges for another reason: They are engines of ideas and innovation. Professors and researchers generated scientific advances and helped average citizens make sense of their world. They were often seen as neutral arbiters of knowledge, and their academic independence gave them integrity.

Recently, academic expertise has been questioned — and efforts have even been made to delegitimize it, if it runs counter to certain worldviews or ideological narratives. Perhaps the most prominent example has been in Florida, where administrators at the University of Florida pre-emptively stopped political-science professors from testifying in a legal case challenging a voting-restrictions law backed by the DeSantis administration.

But David J. Vanness, a former University of Wisconsin professor who now teaches health policy and administration at Pennsylvania State University, said the roots of skepticism of universities and intellectual expertise run deep in Wisconsin. He points to a 1994 essay by Michael S. Joyce, president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a right-leaning think tank that has long been a player in Wisconsin’s higher-education politics. Joyce called for ending the “intellectual hegemony” and centrality of public education embodied in the Wisconsin Idea.

“It laid out a solid case for why taking on public institutions of higher education was key to the conservative strategy,” Vanness said of the essay. “And it saw Wisconsin as a bit of a laboratory.”

More than a decade later, another Bradley Foundation chief executive would serve as chairman of Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.

But the attack on higher education may have resonated in Wisconsin for another reason: Only about 30 percent of adults in the state have a college degree.

“We’re still a relatively blue-collar state in what has become a knowledge economy,” Shelton, the Green Bay professor, said. “We have a lot of people who can’t participate in that economy.”

Over time, a degree has increasingly become a prerequisite for middle-class job security. People with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 31 percent more than those with an associate degree and 84 percent more than those with just a high-school diploma, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Walker’s time in office was preceded by a recession that caused much steeper job losses for less-educated Americans than for college graduates, and those with less education were slower to recover from the downturn.

The idea that their tax dollars were going to colleges, and to professors’ salaries, even as many of them struggled to regain their financial footing, could help explain the support among some Wisconsin voters for Walker’s actions to end collective bargaining and cut the university-system budget, said David J. Weerts, a professor of organizational leadership, policy, and development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, who has written about the relationship between universities and state governments. “People already have their own pocketbook concerns,” Weerts said, “and now it’s, oh, you want my taxes to go to pay for you?”

They get the summers off. They shower before work, not afterwards.

Katherine J. Cramer, a political-science professor at Madison, interviewed many of these working-class Wisconsinites for her 2016 book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Crisscrossing the state, she spoke with the older, white, rural voters who constituted Walker’s, and later President Donald J. Trump’s, base. They felt distant and disconnected from universities and from academics, whom they perceived as “elitist and aloof.”

“They get the summers off,” they told Cramer, in explaining why they viewed professors with suspicion. “They shower before work, not afterwards.”

The lack of familiarity with the way colleges operate can make them an easy target. The average worker doesn’t have shared governance at the call center or on the machine-shop floor and doesn’t necessarily understand the mechanics of tenure. “The way higher ed operates is opaque to the general public,” Taylor said. “Professors can say things you as a voter don’t like, and their job is protected.”

The sense that colleges act as gatekeepers, choosing economic winners and losers, can be a tough pill to swallow for the many Americans who worry that the rising cost of college could make a degree too expensive for them or their children. Three in four respondents in a recent Morning Consult poll said a college education would be “difficult” for “someone like them” to afford; more than half said studying at an in-state public university cost too much.

Concern about college costs cuts across partisan lines. Still, anticollege sentiment is more prevalent on the conservative side of the aisle — in the same New America survey that found that barely a third of Republican voters viewed higher education favorably, nearly three-quarters of Democrats said they did.

It can be something of a chicken-and-egg debate: Did Walker and his fellow Republican politicians tap a vein of malcontent about college, or did they help foment those feelings? Either way, there is almost no surer political and cultural dividing line in this country today than a college degree.

“People without degrees — that’s the GOP base today,” said Harnisch of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Exit polls in the 2020 presidential election show that two-thirds of white voters without college degrees cast their ballots for Trump.

Running against college plays to Republicans’ core constituency. And states are the natural setting for such showdowns because they are the locus of conservative strength: Republicans control more than 60 percent of state legislative chambers, including Wisconsin, where partisan redistricting has helped cement GOP dominance. In 23 states they have “trifectas,” meaning they control both houses of the state legislature as well as the governor’s office.

Historically, though, higher education didn’t neatly split into red and blue camps. Many of the education governors of the past were Republicans. George W. Bush earned a reputation for being education-friendly in his time as governor of Texas. Tommy Thompson, a long-serving Wisconsin governor who recently spent two years as interim president of the state-university system, also got good marks, said Vanness of Penn State. “He didn’t always agree with us politically, but he would ask, ‘Let’s see what the professors say.’”

Did Walker and his fellow Republican politicians tap a vein of malcontent about college, or did they help foment those feelings?

The “increasingly adversarial” relationship between higher education and the Republican base is notable because it is a shift, said Loss, the Vanderbilt professor. “The remarkable thing for much of the 20th century was the bipartisan support that existed for higher ed.”

Higher education’s role as an economic arbiter in the knowledge economy can help account for some of the bitterness, but experts said colleges — and the students and professors on campus — can simply be out of step with politically and culturally conservative voters. Campuses are typically less segregated, and student bodies are more diverse, than other institutions.

Dating back to the student protests of the 1960s, campus politics have been left of center. Traditionally minded Americans, already buffeted by economic and social change, may be uncomfortable with colleges as a liberalizing force.

“For many conservatives, it seems like campuses are training grounds for liberal ideas,” Loss said. No wonder America’s cultural fault lines run through college campuses.

Veterans of Wisconsin’s battles said they have some hard-earned lessons to share with others around the country. Students and college employees mobilized, and in 2018, they were key to the successful effort to deny Walker a third term as governor. “We learned how important it was for us to have a voice,” Vanness said. “When we’re quiet, we get run over.”

“I wouldn’t want people to read your article and come away with a sense of doom and gloom,” Goldberg said. “We did face a powerful onslaught in Wisconsin, but we fought and had some successes.”

For Goldberg and some of his colleagues, the bruising colleges took spurred them to engage more with the public through their scholarship. He helped organize and teach a course on the Wisconsin Idea. Lectures were open to the public, and Goldberg said he was heartened by the discussions about higher education’s role in society.

He and others say the way forward in the current divisive national environment is to commit more firmly and forcefully to the ideals that underpin the Wisconsin Idea, that institutions of higher education can be powerful and positive influences in their communities. In their view, politicians like Walker, with their narrow and instrumentalist approach to higher education, gained the upper hand in part because for too long academic leaders got away from emphasizing the public good of college — they mounted, in Taylor’s words, partial defenses.

By failing to assert higher education’s common benefits, they allowed its opponents to exploit its fractures. “I think it emboldened people on the right to make attacks,” Goldberg said.

Walker isn’t on the ballot this fall, and his run for president, in 2016, failed to catch fire. Yet the fight he kicked off will very much continue at the polls this November. Tony Evers, a Democratic former state superintendent of public instruction who defeated Walker, is locked in a tough battle for re-election with Tim Michels, a newcomer backed by Trump. If Evers loses, or if Republicans gain a supermajority in the state legislature, Wisconsin’s public colleges could be plunged back into the divisiveness that marked the past decade.

Evers, who served on the Board of Regents in his role as superintendent of education, has redirected more money to higher education, helping colleges regain some of the budgetary ground lost under Walker. He has also prevented statehouse Republicans from enacting legislation that could have been damaging to higher education: For example, he vetoed a bill that would have banned the teaching of critical race theory.

But Evers’s tenure has been only a partial reprieve, said Shelton, the faculty organizer at Green Bay. The State Senate’s refusal to confirm many of the governor’s appointees, backed by the state Supreme Court, means that many of the members of the Board of Regents and the technical-college system’s governing board are holdovers from the Walker years. “It’s a stalemate,” Shelton said. “The best we can do right now is to prevent bad things from happening.”

He and other observers said that Walker’s legacy continues to be felt. The Madison campus saw an exodus of talented professors and researchers after the rollback of tenure and shared-governance protections, including Vanness, who left for Penn State in 2018 in part because of his “worries about degradation” of Wisconsin’s universities. Administrators were able to retain some of those being wooed away with a generous package of incentives, but Harnisch said one Minnesota college president told him that “Scott Walker was the best recruiter he ever had.”

At regional campuses, the cutbacks were deep. Budget reductions froze hiring, canceled raises, and led to a wave of early retirements. Some positions were replaced by untenured appointments, while others were eliminated altogether, a loss of institutional knowledge, Shelton said. On a pair of campuses, in Superior and Stevens Point, administrators moved to get rid of more than a dozen academic programs, many in the liberal arts. (Leaders at Stevens Point later backed away from the plan after an outcry.)

Despite Evers’s support, years of miserly appropriations, combined with tuition freezes, have led to a scramble among the state’s colleges to attract more students as a necessary revenue source. “It’s created an implicit culture of competition,” Shelton said.

The reliance on tuition could be even more challenging in the current environment. Enrollment declines across the public-university system during the Covid-19 pandemic were double that of national rates, said Stein of the Wisconsin Policy Forum. “Nationally, the picture’s not great,” he said, “and in Wisconsin, it’s not greater.”

Taylor compares what happened in Wisconsin under Walker to a car wreck. Perhaps you can drive your vehicle away from the accident scene, but it will never operate in the same way again. “Higher education in Wisconsin,” he said, “is diminished.”

And colliding views of college, between conservative politicians and campus leaders, could leave behind wreckage strewn across the country.

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