A graduation message during a fiscal crisis

It is nearing the end of finals week here at UW-Madison, and this weekend is filled with graduation events. Our students and their families have every right to be proud of what they have accomplished — the criteria for admission to UW-Madison are extraordinarily high, and the curricula that our students pursue once here are challenging in both their breadth and their depth. Not surprisingly, all of our data indicates that UW graduates go on to great things, not just in the first jobs they land over the months after graduation, but in the careers and communities that they nurture with their leadership and creativiity for years to come.

As a member of several different units on campus, I have the pleasure of being involved in a bunch of different graduation events. In my role as a faculty member in the School of Library & Information Studies, I participate in a Sunday morning ceremony where about 100 graduate students and their families are recognized upon completion of the Master’s Degree that will help them advance their professional careers. In my role as Director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, I am lucky to be part of the big Sunday afternoon ceremony at the Kohl Center, even taking a turn at handing out diplomas on stage to undergraduates from around the College of Letters & Science. And I also get to speak more directly to an informal gathering of Journalism & Mass Communication undergraduate and graduate students and their families at a departmental open house on Friday afternoon.

But this is a bittersweet week to be saying goodbye to this year’s class of students. Today in the local news, the UW System found that it may be held to a two-year tuition freeze and a cut in the planned state appropriation of funds, due to arguments over the size of the reserve fund that the system maintains (which includes a certain amount of accumulated tuition revenue). According to Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, quoted today in a Wisconsin State Journal article by Dan Simmons, “The Walker administration is saddened that the UW System did not show leadership during a fiscal crisis and instead made the burden of public higher education heavier while stockpiling cash.”

Admittedly, as a UW faculty member, I have an interest in seeing our institution adequately resourced so that we can continue our tradition of excellence in research, teaching, and service. But I am also a parent of two students who will begin attending college themselves in less than five years, and the rising trend of tuition bills across the nation — at both public and private universities — disturbs me as well. And as a taxpaying resident of the state, I want to know that the revenue dollars I contribute to the budget go to support the public good, and not to enrich private interests or to bolster partisan power.

So I think that this latest debate over state funding for higher education is both important and necessary; however, the progress of that debate so far profoundly disturbs me because it doesn’t seem to engage with the simple, substantive question of “how much is enough”: how much tuition revenue, how large a reserve fund, and how significant a state appropriation are necessary to allow a world-class research university to thrive in a state of only 5.7 million residents?

By all the measures I’ve seen, my own institution of UW-Madison succeeds extraordinarily well upon a revenue base that is extraordinarily slim compared to its peers — and a revenue base which has been subject to gradual state disinvestment over the past years. For example:

  • Tuition: According to data from UW-Madison Academic Planning and Institutional Research, both our in-state and out-of-state undergraduate tuition — $10,385 and $26,634 respectively — remain below the average of our peer institutions — $11,782 and $28,270.
  • State appropriation: From the last five years of the UW-Madison “Data Digest” it is clear that the financial appropriation from the state has decreased from $491.9M (21% of the overall UW-Madison budget) in 2008-2009 to $476.3M (17% of the overall UW-Madison budget) in 2012-2013. Gifts, grants, and segregated fees now make up a greater portion of the budget than state tax revenue.
  • And finally, the reserves: According to Interim Chancellor David Ward, “Overall, compared to peer institutions, the amounts we hold in reserve are relatively small. The National Association of College and University Business Officers recommends a reserve level of 40 percent. Our reserve ratio is less than 25 percent of our annual budget.” (The full statement by Ward is also a good description of what the reserves are actually used for.)

This below-average resource base has direct effects on our ability to attract and retain the talent necessary to adequately staff our research laboratories, our classrooms, and our public outreach efforts in a way that maximizes the value we can return to our stakeholders. Or, to put it another way, when you disinvest in the university, you strike at the core of the university’s ability to serve the public good. The most direct measure of this from my perspective is our faculty salaries, which are generally lower than those of our peers as well: “In 2012-13, among our official faculty salary peer group, UW-Madison remained ranked 12th among full professors, rose from 8th place to 6th for associate professors, and remained 11th among assistant professors.”

Yet even with these comparatively modest resources — considering what our peer public universities receive — we’ve accomplished great things during this financial crisis. Our most recent survey of post-graduation plans (from last year’s class) revealed that among students intending to pursue employment after graduation, nearly 2/3 had accepted a position or had been offered a position by the time they graduated. And students reported significant improvement in every one of the “Essential Learning Outcomes” that we identify as part of the Wisconsin Experience at UW-Madison.

UW-Madison post-graduation plans 2011-2012

UW-Madison Essential Learning Outcomes 2011-2012

Others may argue for different measures of costs and benefits — but in the current debate sometimes I wonder if any measures even matter. I can’t help but listen to claims that “the UW System did not show leadership during a fiscal crisis,” and wonder what statements might have been made by those same critics of the university had the UW made different choices. For example, if UW-Madison hadn’t gone forward with the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which included a targeted raise for tuition to support both new faculty and increased need-based aid, my own departments would have had five fewer faculty and staff on hand this year, we would not have a cross-department Digital Studies Certificate Program to help students engage with the new information society regardless of major, and the 170 students who our Internships in the Liberal Arts & Sciences project helped mentor through corporate, government, and non-profit internships over the last two years would not have had any UW guidance or support. It’s easy for me to imagine the criticism in that alternate universe that UW “did not show leadership during a fiscal crisis” by underpricing the true cost of its education and failing to provide the critical staff and programs to allow students to complete their degrees on time and compete in the networked global economy. Similarly, if the UW System hadn’t held back a reserve fund to minimize its risk of catastrophic disruption through the biennial budget uncertainties from both Republican and Democratic state administrations alike, I can imagine the criticism in that alternate universe that UW “did not show leadership during a fiscal crisis” by failing to set aside the kind of rainy-day fund that any responsible household or small business would be expected to hold.

Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic. But the historian in me knows that for a whole series of intertwined reasons, higher education — especially when tagged with the modifiers “Madison” or “liberal” or “research” or “elite” — has today become an easy proxy war site for partisan political battles. In a state so contradictorily divided as Wisconsin — sending simultaneously one of the most progressive and one of the most conservative senators to Washington right now — maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. But the faculty, staff, students, families, and stakeholders who support the promise of higher education excellence — not just upward mobility for students, knowledge production for society, and economic development for the state, but the provision of a safe and respectful space for true innovation, exploration, and debate — can’t let this war continue on our terrain.

(After all, another way to “show leadership during a fiscal crisis” in order to keep student tuition down in our public university system would be for the state to significantly increase, not decrease, its percentage of the cost burden. But that would go against the current administration’s characterization of higher education as a private act of individual consumption rather than a public act of social investment.)

So what does all this mean for my address to those graduating Journalism & Mass Communication students and their families this Friday afternoon? I hope they agree with me that the money that they have paid through tuition — as well as the money that Wisconsin residents pay through taxes, and the money that our many friends and alumni donate through gifts — has been well-spent. I will promise them that we will continue to work hard to make sure their degree retains its value after they leave us — and that future generations of students have the same experience of excellence as they have had. And I will suggest to them that just as they have benefitted from the tuition investments, state appropriations, and voluntary gifts of others over many, many years gone by, they might consider “paying it forward” at some point in their own future, by donating their time, resources, and advocacy on behalf of this place that has affected their lives so much. I believe I will be speaking with integrity when I tell them this — but it can be a hard message to communicate in such a hostile environment.

Any large, complicated, and even contradictory organization like a university needs to constantly challenge its own practices and assumptions to make sure that it continues to deliver value to its stakeholders — and UW-Madison should certainly continue to do so. But I want to absolutely counter the dominant narrative that higher education in the state of Wisconsin has somehow suffered a systemic failure of “leadership during a fiscal crisis.” On the contrary, those of us who make our careers in higher education believe that especially in times of fiscal crisis — just as in times of social unrest, or technological disruption, or war, as these last ten years have also been — that the careful pursuit and verification of knowledge matters, that art and creativity and imagination and fearless curiosity need to be nurtured, and that our graduates, with all of their diversity and achievement, are the very leaders that we need to continue to produce.

Congratulations to all of those graduates — and “On Wisconsin!”