Letter to the Joint Committee on Finance

Senator Darling, Representative Nygren, and members of the Joint Committee on Finance:

Sifting-and-Winnowing-Plaque1My name is Kelly Wilz and I am an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin Marshfield/Wood County. I’m sure you have received many letters from faculty members, concerned about how much this budget will devastate their campuses. I’m sure by now you’ve heard the personal stories of how life altering these cuts will be for those who currently work in the UW System. But I know you’re meeting this week to vote on many of the issues proposed in Governor Walker’s budget. So consider this my hope that maybe my words will give you pause to consider how drastic these proposed cuts will be and an attempt to inform you of the irreparable damage the mere proposal of some of these policies has already had across the UW System. Perhaps this is more for me than for you, because at this point, my voice is all I have.

I’ve always taken for granted the educational opportunities afforded to me as a Wisconsinite. In high school, I looked forward to attending my English classes and can still name every book I read in my World Literature seminar. I thought I hated Chemistry until I had two teachers who made it so fun and engaging that not being excited about the periodic table and understanding how the world works was simply impossible. We had nine choirs and an amazing band and orchestra program. Stevens Point Area Senior High was robust in course offerings so that all students could find somewhere they belonged. When I was offered the opportunity in 2009 to work and live and give back to the community that had given me so much, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.

But reality struck as soon as I began working in the UW System: simply put, the Wisconsin I grew up in no longer exists. State support for education has decreased precipitously under Republican and Democratic governors alike—and Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states that has not restored public funding for higher education to the level it was before 2009. Instead, year after year, we’ve seen more cuts. When my students’ parents went to college in Wisconsin, they covered 20% of the bill, and the state covered the rest.  Last year my students covered 70% of the bill themselves. Next year, due to proposals in this budget, it will be 80%.

Governor Walker has stated publicly, “Our budget changes are only 2.5 percent of the total UW System operating budget.” Sounds reasonable. But as John Conley clarifies in his article “This Is What Wisconsin’s 2.5% Budget Cut Looks Like,” “the cuts must come from the much smaller part of the budget that can be raised or lowered. In reality, the proposal slashes state support for the university system by 13 percent and includes a 25-percent cut in funding for ‘essential educational functions,’ such as instruction, student advising, and programming.” The majority of the eleven comprehensive campuses are offering faculty and staff buyouts. As UW-Milwaukee faculty member Nick Fleisher points out, “For UW, this is bankruptcy reorganization in all but name.”

Though the budget has not even been passed, people have already lost their jobs, some of our most talented educators have retired or found new jobs, searches to replace those who have left have been frozen, and those positions most likely will not be filled. As UW Rock County Dean Carmen Wilson said in her 20 years with the UW Colleges system, this cut is the most challenging yet, claiming that “‘This cut takes us back to funding levels that we got in 1998, so we are running a 21st-century institution on a 20th-century budget.’ Wilson also noted that ’92 percent of UW Rock County’s budget is for personnel, so there is nowhere else to cut back on expenses. In addition, the campus cannot take more students to increase revenue since admissions already accepts whoever wants to come.'” And, as Noel Radomski argued just today, “It appears likely that the UW System will receive significant state budget cuts, and the UW Colleges will not be spared. Unlike the comprehensive and doctoral campuses, the UW Colleges cannot raise tuition revenue by increasing the number of non-resident and international undergraduates and graduate/professional students. Non-resident undergraduate students make up only a tiny percentage of UW Colleges’ enrollment. The UW Colleges do not offer graduate programs. City, county, and state elected officials view international students as outside the scope of the UW Colleges mission — these campuses are a destination for place-bound students to complete their college education at reduced cost in their local communities.”

In the 2013/15 biennium budget, UW-Marshfield/Wood County reduced its budget by $76,633. In 2014, the UW Colleges cut $2.3 million, and positions were eliminated. Now we’re looking at a $6.7 million cut—about 2 ½ times the previous cut, which will mean more layoffs and even fewer resources for students.

You may have heard that we at the UW Colleges have already had to “shrink administration” to handle the proposed cuts. I want to explain what that means. We aren’t firing Chancellors, or Provosts, or those who work in Central Administration. The title and the article itself are misleading. When discussing “shrinking administration,” we are talking about cuts to campus services that directly impact students—financial aid and advising services, services to veterans, counseling services and many more. And again, with 8 years of cuts and tuition freezes, we’ve already drastically cut services to students, forcing those who still work at these campuses to take on the responsibility of any job that is cut. For example, with every year of budget cuts, we’ve had to cut back on mental health and counseling services. My office hours might as well be counseling sessions. Because when you can only afford to hire a certain number of counselors and they are only there on a certain number of days, you don’t just turn away a student who is having a panic attack, tells you they’re considering committing suicide and hurting themselves or someone else, or close the door to a student who has just been physically or sexually assaulted. You stay with them until you find them help. You listen until they’ve calmed down enough to at least get through the rest of the day. You do what you have to do because you’re human and they literally have nowhere else to go.

I simply can’t imagine what my campus and others will look like next year. Our mission is central to the Wisconsin Idea. The UW Colleges are the UW System’s open door, offering an affordable and accessible option for thousands of students. We offer the first two years of a liberal arts education with an Associate of Arts and Science degree, and six campuses currently offer a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree-completion program. We have the lowest tuition in the UW System and offer students the opportunity to pursue a degree while living in their home community at our campuses, online, or through the UW Flexible Option program. We serve more part-time students, more adult undergraduates, and more first-generation college students than any other UW institution. In fact, 60% of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Students from the UW Colleges graduate from 4-year campuses at a 20% higher rate than any other transfer group, including those from technical schools, private schools, and 4-year campuses. And our students—the Wisconsinites staying within their communities, seeking a college degree to improve their lives and others’ in these communities—are the ones who will be most hurt by these cuts.

For example, the mere proposal of these cuts resulted in the elimination of some academic majors and minors and entire departments and programs. Students are registering for fall courses that may not even exist. One of my former students who is now at a comprehensive UW campus stated that due to the elimination of specific course offerings, only 1 out of the 4 classes she’s signed up for will fulfill a requirement she needs to graduate, so she will have to pay for another year of tuition and another year not in the workforce to graduate and make a better life for herself and her 3 children.

And she is not alone. The ability of all students to graduate on time is at stake. The longer they have to wait to complete their coursework, the more they have to pay, and the longer it takes for them to get into the workforce. The inability to get into required classes is a prime driver of time-to-degree across the country. The conversations we have on our campus at our Curriculum and Budget Committee meetings are solely focused on the bottom line. We have been forced to make decisions regarding which classes to offer not based on student need but whether they will enroll and generate revenue for the campus. This means that instead of talking about what classes students actually need to graduate or what faculty are best suited to offer, we have to make decisions based on what will allow our campus to simply remain open. With 8 years of tuition freezes, the inability to cut from certain areas, and a loss of state funding, we end up cutting in places that simply shouldn’t be touched.

My friends often ask, “If working in the UW System is so horrible, why don’t you leave?” And the answer is that despite budget cuts, low morale, and a paycheck that forces me to seek additional work, I love the UW System and I am committed to my students. I feel incredibly privileged to teach at an institution that embodies what a liberal arts education should be, adding to the number of Wisconsinites who can think, who can communicate, who can be good citizens and get the job done. I love that I’m part of an institution that values teaching, scholarship, and community outreach. And I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to work with some of the most dedicated, intelligent, kind, and passionate scholars in the country. I love my job and can’t imagine working anywhere else. Despite what has been the most challenging semester of my teaching career, my students nominated me for the annual Teaching Excellence award this year. And I was not alone. A number of my colleagues won awards as well—one who managed to do an amazing job teaching his courses and publish two books. Because I work amongst some of the best academics in the nation. Tenured faculty who change their syllabus every semester to make it new and exciting to their students. Colleagues who serve as mentors, advisors, counselors, and who have and continue to put the needs of their students before themselves day after day after day. Though the emotional toll is high, they epitomize selflessness. And though every year I’ve seen some of the finest faculty leave UW campuses and universities for greener pastures, Wisconsin is home. This is where I belong.

However, I know I am not alone when I say I am close to my breaking point. Just last week, state employees were informed that our main out-of-pocket health care costs will double next year to avoid the ACA tax on “Cadillac Benefit Plans.” However, unlike other state employees across the nation who have the right to collectively bargain, this decision was just made and will be implemented in January with no say from faculty or staff. I’m hoping, members of the Joint Committee on Finance that, as state workers you also will be paying more for your healthcare next year. You know—solidarity and all.

This, is essentially, yet another pay cut. I will officially make less now as a tenured professor than I did when I started in 2009. In most jobs, your pay is supposed to increase over time—not the other way around. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t make a six figure salary nor will I ever if I spend the rest of my lifetime working in the Colleges. Starting salaries of a professor with a Ph.D. remain at $43,000 and have stagnated. The highest paid professor with a Ph.D. at UW-Marshfield/Wood County, after 23 years of experience and service to our campus, makes $65,521.00.

Most of my colleagues have second jobs, some at other institutions and others in any part time job available. Several who work full time on my campus and at other institutions are eligible for food stamps and reduced priced lunch programs for their children. They live paycheck to paycheck, working as line cooks and waitresses. They continue to pay off student loans and will do so for the next 25+ years at our rate of pay. Just the other day, a tenured faculty member asked if I’d be a reference on her application to Family Video. I bartended for several years during the summer to help pay off my student loans and make sure I didn’t find myself further in debt. As awkward as it was to have my students see me behind a bar, sadly, I couldn’t afford to leave that job because I made more serving alcohol than teaching in the UW System.

What angers me most is that none of this needed to happen. We face a $2.2 billion budget hole for 2015-17 because of $2 billion in tax cuts since 2011. Many simply accept as fact that cuts need to be made to balance the state’s budget. What doesn’t get included in the conversation is the fact that you, our representatives, are choosing to refuse federal funds. If we were to accept the Badgercare Expansion, we’d not only cover 80,000 more people, but much of this “crisis” would go away

“But what happens when the federal government stops paying for the program,” you ask?

Any state can request a waiver that states that after we no longer receive 100% of the funding from the federal government, we can go back to the current situation and not be on the hook for keeping that specific program going. According to the Henry A. Kaiser Family Foundation, “More states are discussing alternative models through waivers as a politically viable way to implement expansion in order to extend coverage and capture federal dollars . . . . To date, five states have received approval of a Section 1115 waiver to implement the Medicaid expansion (Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and most recently Indiana).” These waivers allow the states to implement the Medicaid expansion while also giving them time to figure out how they will fund these programs in the future once they no longer receive 100% of the funding from the federal government. These waivers allow each state to discontinue the program if there are no state monies to fund that particular program once federal money runs out. Wisconsin citizens have been led to believe that this just simply isn’t an option when that is just patently false.

This is also reflected in a report from the Wisconsin Budget Project citing, that “State policymakers could free up $782 million by making three changes: capturing our state’s share of the money Wisconsin taxpayers have been sending to Washington for Medicaid expansions; halting the continued phase-in of an ineffective corporate tax break that has mushroomed in cost; and reallocating $211 million that the bill uses for poorly targeted property tax cuts.”

I don’t understand how these cuts benefit anyone in our state, and it’s an especially hard pill to swallow when these cuts are not only unnecessary, but could have been avoided completely. We are being asked, for yet another year, to do more with less. There is nothing left. State divestment in public education cannot continue. I get it. Defunding public education has become politically easy. As the Nation recently reported, “If states won’t raise taxes or cut back on mass incarceration, gutting higher education becomes the path of least resistance.” But it’s a dangerous path we’ve been walking on for far too long. I urge the Joint Committee on Finance to reject these cuts outright and do what’s best for Wisconsin—for your constituents and everyone you claim to represent. If you have any conscience—any sense of what is right, fair, and just, you will vote against these policies and restore funding to public education. I want to forever call Wisconsin home, but doing more with less, year after year simply wears on the soul. The years of cuts and pummeling the UW System has taken can only go on for so long before what stands for public education in this state only bears a faint resemblance to the robust system in place for so many years. Thank you for your time and consideration. I truly hope you consider these words and the lives of so many when you make your final decisions.

Sincerely,
Kelly Wilz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Communication/Theatre Arts
UW–Marshfield/Wood County
2000 W. 5th St
Marshfield, WI 54449

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