Education seems to be under attack from all sides these days, both from the state government and from within the University of Wisconsin administration. Gov. Scott Walker has been painted to be an archenemy of schoolteachers, but if you ask me, Chancellor Biddy Martin isn’t any better. Her New Badger Partnership represents the most radical change to the UW model since the merger of Wisconsin schools in the 1970s, and it represents a complete departure from the idea of a public university.
The Partnership would separate Madison from the greater UW System, giving it more flexibility to seek out private funding and spend money with less oversight. To be fair, Martin’s reasons to make the Madison campus an autonomous public authority are logical, but they are based on the wrong kind of logic. In her various interviews, memos and mass emails, she consistently outlines the need to maintain our status as a “talent magnet,” that we must “spur innovation,” and that the university brings in a billion dollars in grant money to the state of Wisconsin every year. She also cites the need to set “market based tuition,” and refers to the Badger Partnership as a “business model.” Martin is looking at this issue from a purely economic perspective, but for students, the economics don’t work out.
Private and political interests will inevitably play a greater role at UW under the New Badger Partnership. Currently, a Board of Regents oversees the UW System. In the new model, Walker would be in charge of appointing 11 of the 21 members of a Board of Trustees. Considering Walker proposed public authority status for UW in his budget, I see this as a serious conflict of interest and an excess of political influence in university administration. Significant support from businesses will make this university dependent upon the private sector. Personally, I think it is better to be funded by a state government, even a stingy one, than to be supported by corporate interests and private donors and all the heavy influences their money brings. The worst part of a transition from public to private is that by seeking out private money, UW is allowing the state of Wisconsin to back out of its responsibility to support public education.
While replacing state funding with private contributions, the Partnership will increase tuition significantly. Martin has claimed a college education is an investment that pays off in the long run, but what she doesn’t recognize is that this is irrelevant for students who can’t afford such an investment in the first place. Public universities are the most affordable option for college education, but students and families are still under considerable economic strain. If UW implements “market based” tuition under the proposed plan, it will be making college education all but inaccessible to average Wisconsin families. By continuing the upward spiral of tuition prices, Martin is directly contradicting the central idea of the public university, that post-secondary education should be accessible to all, not just those wealthy enough to afford it.
It is impossible to deny the fact that college education in America has become big business. But is that the direction Wisconsin should be heading? Maybe this is hopelessly idealistic, but I would like to believe education is something more than a commodity. True, a college education brings with it a future of higher salaries and greater job security, but is that its only purpose? Madison has a strong history as a liberal arts school, with an emphasis on things like literature and the humanities – subjects that don’t have the economic value of biochemistry and computer science, but are an important part of our culture and history. The idea of a liberal arts education is that learning is important for its own sake, not because it drives innovation or brings in grant money. When Martin boils down the issue to a matter of greater funding for research in order to create more patents and spin-off companies to improve the economic outlook of the state, she loses sight of the fact that UW is a university, not a public-private research laboratory like the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Yes, WID is a cool, futuristic building with a Mesozoic theme, but it is unclear to me how it benefits students, and it concerns me that it is the direction UW is headed.
By opening the university to political and business interests, making education even less accessible to middle and low-income families and further commercializing UW, it seems like Martin misinterpreted the Wisconsin Idea as badly as Walker did.
Charles Godfrey ([email protected]) is a freshman with an undecided major.