Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker acknowledges the crowd after being inaugurated for his second term. (AP/Andy Manis)

Scott Walker’s con game: Why his university cuts will hurt students and over-worked adjuncts the most

As tempting as a nice controlled burn to weed out the university's slacking class sounds, it’ll never happen



John Warner
February 2, 2015 8:30PM (UTC)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has suggested that in order to mitigate the damage of his proposed $300 million dollar cut to the University of Wisconsin system, professors could teach an additional course each semester. “Things like that could have a tremendous impact on making sure that we preserve an affordable education for all of our UW campuses, and at the same time we maintain a high-quality education,” Walker told reporters.

Of course, Walker didn’t say “mitigate the damage” — “damage” is my word — but the notion that $300 million in cuts can be absorbed without compromising the operation of Wisconsin’s universities is absurd, no matter how many additional courses faculty pick up. Walker’s approach is especially shortsighted as the University of Wisconsin is home to the “Wisconsin Idea,” a vision where, (in the words of one-time University of Wisconsin President Charles R. Van Hise), the university should “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.”

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The economic benefit to Wisconsin in having a leading research university, as well as a network of regional schools that provide convenient and cost-effective educations to the state’s populace is impossible to overstate.

That said, I have some limited sympathy with the notion that there’s some professors who could indeed pick up some of the slack and teach more, particularly at R1 universities such as Wisconsin.

My experience working at three different R1’s (University of Illinois, Virginia Tech, and Clemson) is that the vast majority of professors are working the 50-70 hours per week that they consistently self-report in studies. The teaching, research, advising, and administrative tasks that fall on a typical working professor leaves most of them consistently working to capacity, or, more likely, sacrificing some part or another of their work portfolios, a cycle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The testimony I hear from my hard-working tenured colleagues is like that of a lot of other workers in the austerity era: too much work, not enough time, and not enough money.

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That said, anyone who denies the existence of deadwood in their department is lying. Every department at every research university has tenured professors whose research productivity has dropped to nil, but nonetheless retain teaching loads designed for people who actually produce scholarship.

I promise that the productive professors lament and resent these people, but I also know that the members of the slack-ass class are unlikely to be outed and forced into additional duties by Walker’s proposal.

What is more likely to happen, because it happens every time higher ed budgets are cut, is that we will see an increase in the teaching load and reliance on non-tenure-track faculty.

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The most recent example is Arizona State University (the victim of its own state-level budget cuts), which recently foisted an additional course on its English Department writing faculty, raising the load from four courses per semester to five. The ASU administration position is that they are simultaneously reducing any “service” requirements for instructors, but this is a fig leaf at best, as duties like developing curriculum and advising students don’t instantly vanish just because an administrator declares it so.

At five courses per semester with 25 students per course, each instructor will be responsible for 125 students, which is three times what disciplinary experts recommend as the ideal student load, and twice what is considered the absolute maximum if we’re going to preserve educational quality.

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Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for ASU, called teaching loads in line with quality educational practices a “luxury ill-afforded by a university trying to educate a growing population and workforce of tomorrow.”

As happened at ASU, Wisconsin’s cuts will inevitably fall on the population least able to absorb them. This is, of course, the narrative of our most recent recession and “recovery” for a lot of people.

Walker likes to position himself as a kind of populist, on the side of the regular folks, taking on those fat cats with union jobs and pensions paid for with public money, and the image of the privileged professoriate is a tempting target. I’m annoyed as anyone that for some, their progressive politics don’t seem to extend far enough to help their non-tenurable colleagues.

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There’s a part of me that wouldn’t mind seeing some of the crusty bastards with the corner offices who avoid students like they have Ebola get what they have coming to them, a nice controlled burn to clear out that dead wood.

But that’s not who is being harmed by these cuts –- or even more draconian measures proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, who will have drained almost a billion dollars out of higher education in his state by the time he’s done.

Walker wants us thinking that there isn’t enough to go around and someone else is getting something they don’t deserve. It’s a con game, and by getting me to even consider the upside of his proposal, it’s proof he’s winning.

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We have a wealthier country than any other time in its history, until tomorrow, when it will be wealthier still.

We should be putting a lot more money into public education. After all, educating a growing workforce for the jobs of tomorrow isn’t going to happen on the cheap.


John Warner

John Warner is a visiting instructor at the College of Charleston and author of the short story collection, "Tough Day for the Army."

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Adjunct Crisis Budget Cuts Scott Walker Teaching University University Of Wisconsin Wisconsin

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