The Continued Marketization of UW-Madison

May 3, 2012 | Blog

Last year, I wrote extensively about efforts led by former Chancellor Biddy Martin and her administration, donors, and alumni to privatize (or at least semi-privatize) the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  That effort was partially successful, for while Martin and colleagues failed to separate Madison from the rest of the UW System, or gain authority over tuition setting, they did succeed in getting Madison the authority to redesign its human resources system.  This new “flexibility” was praised by many on campus, including staff, faculty, and students, who recognize that the current bureaucracy is not working, especially for those outside of administration.

So, this year the Human Resource Design Project has been advertised as a tremendous opportunity, hard won, and far better than the alternative — the status quo.  Perhaps.  But few reforms are without consequence, and the recommendations recently offered by the working teams in HR Design suggest this case is no exception.  In fact, the potential long-term effects of this redesign process may result in an very different university culture, one that is far less progressive than Madison has historically been known for.  Instead, the recommendations will likely aggressively speed-up Madison’s transformation (I’d say descent) into a market-driven institution focused first and foremost on serving its paying customers.

Some specifics of the recommendations have been discussed over at Sifting and Winnowing and so I direct you to read the details there.  For example, the recommendations include combining the currently unionized classified staff and academic staff into one.  As severals members of the HR working teams point out, this has significant implications for the protections held by unionized workers: “If the state legislature does not amend these statutes, the combining formerly classified staff–the custodians, the office secretaries, financial specialists–into the employee category academic staff will take away the few remaining collective bargaining rights that they have fought and bargained for about 50 years.”  Both the classified staff and the academic staff object to this recommendation.

Another recommendation focuses on the distribution of employee pay based on labor market analyses. As members of the Wisconsin University Union point out, this can mean many things– some resulting in even lower pay for UW-Madison workers.  “There is no standard labor market for any group or individual occupations (with the exception of building trades). There are often valid arguments to be made for or against choosing one group over another. However, choice of a particular labor market as the standard will frequently determine the result.”  Crucially, the current recommendations say nothing about providing cost of living increases to all employees, nor is there any consideration of years of experience with good performance.

Furthermore, the proper implementation of these recommendations will likely grow the size of central administration — not reduce it.  National studies indicate that growth in central administrations are the source of much of the increasing costs of college attendance, so we need to pay special attention here.  According to Joel Rogers, professor of Sociology, “Done properly, the task of specifying the real human capital requirements of hundreds of UW job titles; identifying jobs with the same requirements in external labor markets; collecting all relevant data on their compensation from private employers; and doing all this continuously enough to capture relevant changes, job titles, compensation practices, and labor market boundaries and participants is a massive amount of work.”

Finally, despite promises to the contrary, these recommendations involve cuts to employee compensation.  Specifically, academic staff will see their vacation benefits reduced.  As ASEC has pointed out, “newly employed academic staff will lose nearly 52 hours of vacation/personal time under this proposal. Children attending MMSD have 16 days of vacation that do not coincide with the UW’s current holiday schedule, which means a single parent would have four days of vacation left (after caring for her/his child when local schools are not in session).”  And yet UW claims that employees will not move backwards under the new Design?

Now, to UW’s credit, this has been a somewhat transparent process.  Many public forums have been held, and there are many ways to provide input.  The 11 working groups on this effort involved many people– however, a closer look indicates that the vast majority (perhaps 2/3rds) are people currently in HR in the administration–in other words there were not many faculty or union-represented workers involved.  Furthermore, participation among those on the work groups has been reportedly hampered by meeting times occurring early in the morning (e.g. before childcare begins) and during work hours.

Moreover, there has also been a continuation of last spring’s approach in communicating with campus members– administrators tell us what’s “important” and “smart” without providing hard facts about the evidence on why.  Where does this proposed structure of titles come from? Where is the data regarding the effects of this sort of market-driven approach versus alternatives?  There is very little data given anywhere to back up the contentions in the recommendations, despite the very expensive contributions made by the Huron Consulting firm, hired under Martin to assist with this work.  The rhetorical approach is led by Robert Lavigna, who speaks about the importance of ensuring that the new system can attract and retain “the best talent.”  He utilizes the language of “flexibility”, “efficiency,” and “effective.”  He promises a “greater connection between compensation and performance.”  In other words he talks a lot like Biddy Martin, and others like her who are bringing business practices to education.

Thus, one key thing that the new HR Design highlights is that the neoliberal politics embodied in Biddy Martin were not hers alone, and that her efforts were indicative of a broader market-driven culture amongst those who surrounded and hired her, which continues to prevail in today’s UW-Madison (and indeed globally).  These recommendations were issued, and are being systematically advanced, despite her departure.  That is something we all must pay close attention to, as these political maneuverings will likely continue to shape the next stages in Madison’s development- especially the upcoming chancellor search.  Who will be in charge there? What “facts” will we be provided? What role will faculty, staff, and students play, relative to the roles played by WARF, donors, alumni, and administrators?

A thoughtful approach to considering the desirability of the marketization of Madison requires our entire community think about (1) What are the full set of alternative options under consideration? (2) What evidence is being presented about the likely intended and unintended consequences of each option? and (3) Who exactly stands to benefit, and in what ways, from each option?

Notably, these are not the kinds of questions Huron (our highly-paid consultant) is known for asking and answering. Instead, Huron emphasizes a one-directional model in which administration directs the activities of faculty and staff.  Laura Yaeger, VP at Huron, has said that “universities are getting a better understanding of what activities add value to students and stakeholders while  providing clearer guidelines for staff and faculty about which programs and activities should be supported.”   Does that sound like shared governance to you?  Who are those stakeholders?

We are repeatedly being told that our backs are against the wall, and this is our only choice.  Don’t listen to talk like that– you are too smart.  This new Design is neoliberalism at its finest, justifying marketization as a form of self-defense, redefining all interactions within the educational institution as essentially business relationships. We, the faculty and staff and our traditional protections, are being identified as the obstacle to market-based efficiencies.  The ultimate goal is to make UW-Madison less dependent on us.  This gives private investors greater opportunities to profit from state expenditures, while influencing the form and content of education. And it makes business and university administrators the main partnership, redefining student-professor relations.

It is imperative that educators and students across UW-Madison begin to understand and draw attention to how funding priorities, public-private partnerships, tuition and fees, cost-benefit analysis, performance indicators, curriculum changes, and new technologies change the content of academic work and learning, and how they collectively arise from global efforts to discipline academic labor for capital. The changes to Madison’s human resources system, and to its operations more broadly, are intimately linked to employment opportunities in Dane County and elsewhere, and to the kinds of education and services we deliver to the state.  If we are going to be market-driven in how we educate and serve Wisconsin, what we provide will be undoubtedly more unequally distributed.  Everyone should have something to say about that. As Lavigna has said “This system will affect everyone on this campus.”  He’s serious. You need to pay attention.

PLEASE: Send your feedback on HR Design to hrdesign@news.wisc.edu

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