One wonders how high the salaries were of the public relations professionals and university administrators who worked overtime to pick the name “Madison Initiative for Undergraduates,” and to produce the slick promotional film pitching the program. The proposed tuition surcharge would be better named “Biddy Sticks it to Out-of-Staters” or “Martin’s Increase in Undergraduate Debt.” As a parent of a non-resident student, and as a UW alumnus, let me comment on the chancellor’s talent for doublespeak as displayed in the e-mail memo I received, the same one that informed me I’ll be paying this accumulating surcharge on top of an expected 5 or 6 percent tuition increase over the next three years.

In her e-mail, the chancellor remarks “we need to move quickly to invest in improvements in your son or daughter’s undergraduate education and to work toward making the university affordable for all.” Where does the chancellor shop? Is there a store where higher prices make groceries more “affordable”? Does a rent increase make housing more affordable? Do higher gas taxes make gasoline more affordable? Only the most na?ve parents believe the nonsense that a surcharge makes the university “affordable.”

Then, there’s the alleged “improvements.” But the reality is that while the surcharge will tax current undergraduate students, few of them will see these alleged “improvements.” The chancellor says UW will “add faculty.” But it is already too late to hire qualified people in tenure-track positions for fall 2009. The earliest new faculty could be on campus is fall 2010, when the current freshmen are juniors. And, since juniors need fewer of the so-called “gateway courses,” access to which the chancellor promised to increase, it is unlikely current UW students will notice any of the promised “improvements.” Parents, then, should not be fooled into thinking they are somehow making a direct contribution to the betterment of their own child’s education. The surcharge current students and parents pay will go to help those who enroll after the current students have begun paying back student loans.

But, we are promised, there’ll also be an improvement to “vital student services” which the chancellor assures us “have been cited as vital needs.” Cited by whom? The chancellor uses the passive voice to hide the likelihood that those calling for the “vital services” are most likely the very people who benefit by an augmentation of their own ideological influence, supervisory authority and salaries. In my experience, such “services” usually mean a measurable increase in student surveillance along with an unnecessary growth in administrative positions and bureaucratic bloat.

Then, of course, there are the “innovative pedagogical approaches.” Translated that means “new stuff” with a Ph.D. But this is more bait to help us swallow the surcharge hook. Again, from long experience I know that curricular “innovation” takes years to accomplish, even if there is any evidence that current pedagogical approaches are flawed (the chancellor offered no such evidence). In that case, again, current students will not benefit from anything produced as a result of the proposed surcharge.

But, says the chancellor, all this will give UW “a stronger student body” (apparently by driving away talented out-of-state students) who will be assured “that the value of their degrees will be undiminished.” Indeed, that’s good to know, since future graduates may need that undiminished value to buy groceries or pay rent after they’ve written the check for their larger college loan payment.

In concluding, the chancellor says “this proposal asks students and parents … to help.” But, it isn’t really “asking” is it? It’s more like hostage-taking, since there’s very little choice in the matter for currently enrolled students and their parents. But, I do have a choice the next time the UW Foundation calls. I will say this with certainty, although I have been a regular donor to the University since the year of my graduation, I will for the next decade or more consider Chancellor Martin’s “surcharge” as my contribution to the annual fund.

James Farrell
Ph.D., class of 1988