Chancellor Martin reacts to proposed budget repair bill
The message below was emailed today, Feb. 14 to the UW–Madison community.
UW-Madison students, faculty and staff,
This weekend’s news has been dominated by coverage of Gov. Walker’s proposed budget repair bill. We are trying to make sure that we understand all the implications of the bill, but I want to share my initial thoughts and address it to the extent that I am able.
First and foremost, I am concerned about our students, staff and faculty, who face uncertainty and fear as the bill goes to the Legislature and we anticipate the presentation of the biennial budget. In addition to the loss of take-home pay that would result from increased contributions to our pension and health-care benefits (for employees who are benefits-eligible), some members of our community may find themselves ineligible for benefits at all, and many could lose the important rights associated historically with collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
Between April and the end of June, increases in contributions would be combined with furloughs, which are already reducing employees’ salaries. Proposed changes of this magnitude and reach are bound to create enormous stress and strong reaction. In such an environment, I worry about everyone.
There will inevitably be different responses to the proposed changes. Many will protest vigorously in opposition to them. Others will choose to lobby against them. Some will do both. Some will choose to resign themselves to them. Others will hate having to make the changes, but will agree that at least some of them are necessary. Some will support the changes. The university’s administration will serve the campus community by protecting people’s right to their views, while continuing to seek new tools designed to minimize damage and create new opportunities for the university in these difficult times. We will also call on the governor and Legislature to consider other means, short of curtailing employee rights.
As you know, I have been saying for months that I believe the problems Gov. Walker seeks to solve are genuine problems and serious ones. They are not confined to the state of Wisconsin. They are national in scope. Indeed, they go well beyond national borders. Different states are taking different approaches to them. Virtually every public university in the country is being cut as a
result of huge state budget deficits.
Meanwhile, the landscape of higher education financing is changing rapidly. Gov. Walker has made a commitment to dealing with the state’s budget problems without raising taxes. The university will not be exempt from the pain associated with that kind of economic challenge. We will continue to promote the economic, social and cultural value of UW–Madison and the benefits to the state of its competitive position in the world. We will step up our efforts to advocate for support, knowing that there will be cuts in the biennial budget. I hope the citizens of the state and our political leaders will choose over time to do what it takes to invest more, rather than less, in higher education. As you know, however, the trend has been in the opposite direction, and the pressures on Wisconsin’s state budget for the foreseeable future do not suggest a reversal of the trend. We will need to take more responsibility for our own well being, but we can only do that successfully with the flexibility to operate differently.
Let me address a few more issues of concern, focusing on those aspects of the bill that seem clearest at this point. It is not surprising to me that we would be asked to contribute more to our benefits, by which I do not mean to suggest that those increases will not be difficult. They will. They will be more difficult for some than for others. It is common for university employees to
contribute more significantly to pension and health benefits than employees at UW–Madison have in the past. I do not believe the increases that Gov. Walker proposes make our contributions the highest among public universities, but a preliminary review suggests that they are on the high side. We are not yet certain whether they will affect our graduate students to the same extent as they affect faculty and staff, but are actively seeking a better understanding of the impact.
Salaries for some of our employee categories, including for faculty, staff, and for our TAs and PAs, for example, are already below market rates, and the proposed changes in benefits will put them and the university in an even more challenging situation at a time when the state urgently needs its flagship campus to be a talent magnet and job creator. If there are to be increases in contributions, smaller increases would enable us more successfully to recruit and retain the most talented students, staff and faculty. I do not believe we can expect to avoid increases altogether. Given the circumstances, we need the flexibility that will allow us to keep pace in other ways.
I cannot emphasize enough that we need new tools to stay competitive and to do well by our students, staff and faculty, the tools for which I have argued in the New Badger Partnership. Support for that initiative would be a way for the state to support higher education in the face of its budget deficits and in recognition of the university’s increasing reliance on other sources of revenue.
There are a number of other proposed changes in the repair bill that have serious consequences for the campus, including the loss of benefits eligibility for LTEs, the failure to exempt our police department from the bill’s provisions, keeping them on a par with other units, and the changes in collective bargaining rights.
UW-Madison has a long history of working closely and cooperatively with labor and remains committed to doing so. We believe that dialogue and good-faith discussions between state leaders and labor can lead to better solutions to the very real problems we face as a state, and we will be working with the governor’s office and the Legislature to advocate for that dialogue. We will also continue trying to make information available to the campus community, as we come to understand more fully what the various provisions will mean for the university.
My colleagues and I in the administration can best serve this great university by continuing to focus our energies on the New Badger Partnership, in the hope that collaborative work on that front will allow us to optimize opportunities as we look ahead to the biennial budget bill.
I plan to continue meeting the leadership of our shared governance groups, with students and ASM, with labor and with the entire campus community in our forums and other venues about the challenges we face.
Please continue to visit budget.wisc.edu for updates, and share your thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chancellor Biddy Martin