Recently, a University of Wisconsin System-wide slush fund totaling $648 million was brought to light. The university’s silence since this revelation has been deafening, but last week Interim Chancellor David Ward finally commented on what would seem, to those of us who don’t happen to have $648 million lying around, to be kind of a big deal.
Chancellor Ward’s statement, though, was a model mixture of patrician sniffiness and noncommittal boilerplate, and precisely what one has come to expect from the Elect who somehow feel entitled to hoard, and then dispense with, taxpayer money as they see fit.
“We believe we are being prudent stewards of resources,” Chancellor Ward rather desultorily remarked in this statement. The arrogance on display here is staggering. These “resources” are composed heavily of taxpayer dollars, money coercively taken from millions of paychecks across the great state of Wisconsin and entrusted to the UW System for the benefit of all of the state’s citizens. Hiding the taxpayers’ own money from them, and then blinking into the cameras when challenged for such a practice, may be many things, but “prudent stewardship” is not one that comes to mind. In-state UW tuition has increased 121 percent since 2002. Inflation is high, but not quite that high. Not content to let mere cavalier disregard go ungarnished with good old fashioned disingenuousness, Chancellor Ward pointedly failed to note that tuition has been rising – meaning more student hours worked delivering pizzas and washing dishes and fewer hours spent studying or sleeping – while the Grand Panjandrums who keep the royal books have been squirreling cash away for reasons known only to themselves.
What this all comes down to is politics. Chancellor Ward’s masterpiece passive-aggressive dig at the Republican majority in both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature – “given the mood of the legislature at this moment in time we are likely to see significant changes that will be challenging for all of us” – must be matched with the history of the money hoarding in order to make sense. Former Gov. Jim Doyle appointed 10 of the 14 non-student members of the UW Board of Regents. The Democratic governor, whose party’s reputation for fiscal discipline and above-board bookkeeping has surprisingly not yet been sung by the everlasting muses, proved sufficiently spineless for the liking of the UW High Priests, and a river of taxpayer gold was sluiced into the shadowy coffers of the Chosen Few. In 2010, though, the new sheriff, Gov. Scott Walker (cue the foreboding music!) pointed out that Democrats had been perfecting a $3.6 billion surplus in the absence of proper oversight.
By no coincidence, 2010 also marked a new chapter in UW’s ham-fisted political vaudeville act, in which the university pleaded penury and woe, hoping to direct attention away from its fat bank accounts long enough to ride out the unwelcome discipline Republicans were attempting to impose. Sacred cows were slaughtered. Blood ran in the streets. All was darkness and misery, and a plague of fiscal responsibility descended upon the land. The river of gold ran dry (and the taxpayers rejoiced – twice).
The strategy was clear: embarrass the miserly governor, misdirect the public’s attention away from UW’s orgiastic spending and hoarding and wait for brighter days when a compliant Legislature would once again open the spigots of the public fisc and put the UW bureaucrats back in positions of unchallenged power. The professors who decamped for “greener” pastures in a fit of Walker-inspired pique were shortsighted – they had only to wait for the political storm to blow over, or for precisely a story such as this week’s to break – but those sacrificial victims were a small price to pay for the sake of maintaining the opulence of a truly pharaonic secret treasure vault that only the Hieratic Initiates could access. What transporting ecstasy it must have been to steal into that hidden chamber and let all that money – all that wonderful, beautiful money – spill through their fingers again and again.
Let the governor and his taxpaying supporters eat cake; we make our own rules, and power is not for the guileless.
This ongoing fiscal malfeasance, which seems clearly to be part of a pattern of misuse of taxpayer monies that has become part of the institutional culture of the UW System, cannot be overcome with another round of internal investigations. Past “oversights” by UW System President Kevin Reilly, et al., make it necessary for outside forensic auditors with subpoena powers to intervene. If criminal negligence or worse is discovered, then a grand jury must be empaneled and indictments handed down. Some will cry foul at this draconian suggestion. To put the matter into perspective, though, if I had stolen $648 million from the treasury’s strongbox, how much time would you give me to render an account of my “oversight”?
All of this cleaning-up must be done quickly. The incoming chancellor, Rebecca Blank, is an Obama Democrat with experience working for the federal government in Washington, D.C. – the town where profligacy in mere hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars is barely worth getting out of bed in the morning for. The current chicanery may be outrageous, but there’s a strong chance that it is either much worse already or will soon become so.
Jason Morgan ([email protected]) is a Ph.D. student in the history department.