Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Wiley Falls Off His Horse

On this very blog in May, I wrote a glowing post about outgoing UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, in which I praised his commitment to ideological diversity during his tenure. While I stand by everything I wrote at the time, I now fear for Wiley\’s well being, as it appears he may have been hit in the head by a blunt object since then.

This week in Madison Magazine, Wiley unleashes a ridiculously unhinged, factually challenged screed against Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state\’s largest business organization. The entire vitriolic commentary smacks of typical academic elitism – if you disagree with him, you are either evil or stupid. But in effect, it trots out the same talking points any lazy liberal would use to take aim at the business community. Unfortunately, a freshman political science student at UW-Madison could do a better job of researching the facts.

To their credit, WMC has merely shrugged off Wiley\’s ridiculous attack. But such an inaccurate use of the facts from a person who should know better deserves a more thorough response.

First, Wiley trots out the old canard that the UW System is underfunded:

With almost no exceptions, everyone agreed that we can\’t grow our future economy without significant new investments in education–or at least a restoration of some of the last fifteen years worth of cuts.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the total UW budget was $2.5 billion in 1996-97. By 2006-07, just 10 years later, the total system budget had ballooned to $4.3 billion, an average increase of 5.7% per year over a decade. Of that budget, state general purpose revenue increased every year from 1996-97 ($844 million) to 2002-03 ($1.08 billion), until Governor Jim Doyle proposed cutting $250 million from the system over a two-year period. (Shame on WMC for getting Doyle elected.) By 2006-07, state aid had increased to 1.04 billion per year, with the Legislature granting campuses the authority to levy $909 million in tuition – more than twice the $400 million they collected in 1996-97.

Wiley goes on to blame WMC for the \”toxic\” political environment in Wisconsin, as if there has never been tension between those who want to raise taxes and lower them. Apparently, campaigning for lower taxes is a completely new phenomenon in Wisconsin, thanks to the business lobby, trying to represent the interest of their members. (A concept that is alien, apparently, to the teachers\’ union, trial lawyer lobby, casino interests… you get the picture.)

Even more odd is Wiley\’s attempt to blame WMC for a slew of legislative initiatives:

For the last fifteen years of Wisconsin\’s declining fortunes, the candidates WMC has supported for elective office have been the very ones who, when elected, have concentrated their efforts on opposing stem cell research and domestic partner benefits, pushing a cleverly named but economically devastating \”taxpayer bill of rights,\” fussing over the definition of \”marriage,\” hauling universities before staged hearings to defend our efforts to prepare ethnic minority students for the workforce, railing against the personal views of otherwise obscure instructors, resisting any form of gun control, proposing mandatory arming of teachers, demanding the illegal summary firing of named state employees and proposing the elimination of the state\’s only public law school.

Set aside, for the moment, the issues of \”the definition of marriage\” (which passed a public vote with 60%) and the \”economically devastating\” attempt to limit the growth of government. He blames WMC for helping elect representatives who were critical of the UW for hiring 9-11 conspiracy theorist Kevin Barrett to teach a course on Islam. He is, of course, talking about State Representative Steve Nass, who represents a 70% Republican district, and who has likely only received minimal campaign help from WMC. Likewise for State Representative Frank Lasee, who proposed eliminating the UW-Madison law school – a terrible idea, but another legislator who probably hasn\’t ever received any real help from WMC. In fact, the more moderate the legislator is, the more likely they are to have WMC help them – since they are more likely in a competitive district.

And I challenge Wiley to come up with a single legislator who opposes \”any form of gun control,\” or who supports \”mandatory arming of teachers.\” These examples are completely fabricated.

So Wiley\’s calculus works like this: WMC generally supports conservative candidates, who vow to keep taxes down. That means they are on the hook for every Republican bill that might be introduced, whether it passes or not, whether it\’s nutty or not, or whether or not it only exists in Wiley\’s imagination.

Wiley then moves on to the favorite talking point of liberals in Wisconsin – that somehow, every dollar we spend on prisons in Wisconsin takes away funds from the UW System. He says:

Can anyone explain or justify the fact that, according to 2007 Census figures, Wisconsin has 22,966 people incarcerated when our sister state of Minnesota has only 8,757? Are Wisconsin citizens that much more criminally inclined? What does Minnesota know that we don\’t? How much money could we save if Wisconsin judges had greater latitude for exercising sentencing judgment, or if we adopted control and monitoring measures other than expensive incarceration (about $30,000 per prisoner per year)? We\’re talking many hundreds of millions of dollars in savings if the governor and the legislature could work together to tackle these badly needed reforms.

I\’d be happy to explain the disparity between Minnesota and Wisconsin, Chancellor. First, Minnesota uses parole – we do not. Second, Minnesota\’s prison system is entirely different than Wisconsin\’s – most offenders are imprisoned at the local level, not the state level – so their numbers are much lower for state prisons.

Furthermore, drawing a comparison between providing funding for a prisoner and a UW student is a bogus exercise. Yes – we spend more for a prisoner – for instance, someone who may have stabbed someone else to death. We\’re paying to keep the public safe by keeping this guy locked up. To say that money is morally equivalent to making sure some marginal student at UW-Stout doesn\’t have to work a few extra hours at Taco Bell to help pay tuition is misguided. All Wiley has to do is start naming the people he thinks should be let out of prison, and we can start the debate.

Wiley\’s solutions to the toxic political environment? Simple – make the legislature part-time and eliminate most of the local governments in the state. Oh, and set up a \”blue ribbon\” bi-partisan panel to suggest changes. Man, if only someone had thought of that stuff sooner. Sadly, trees had to die to print out those earth-moving recommendations, none of which has any chance of passing.

Yet, apparently those changes are what are necessary to keep Wisconsin from – and I hope you\’re sitting down – becoming a \”permanent third-world state.\” Honestly, if any political science student at UW-Madison used that kind of hyperbole in one of their research papers, they should be forced to re-take the course (unless it was taught by Kevin Barrett.)

Let\’s review – only spending $4.3 billion per year on the UW System is going to make us a \”third-world\” state. As if, suddenly, you\’ll have to sit at your work computer covered in flies, with a distended belly. On the plus side, it may mean Wisconsin has some better Olympic long distance runners.

There\’s a lot more stuff in there, but there are really only so many hours in the day. It\’s just too bad that John Wiley has only recently discovered that the UW-Madison has been a thorn in the side of the Legislature for over a century. Somehow, I think we\’ll survive.


  1. Mr. Schneider’s characterization of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s report on UW funding is disturbingly misleading. The ten-year budget report he helpfully links to clearly documents a dramatic decline in state funding to the UW System from the 1996—97 to 2006-07 school years.
    Claiming that Chancellor Wiley’s funding complaint is some sort of “old canard,” Schneider points out that the LFB report found that the UW System budget increased an average 5.7% per year over the decade.
    What Schneider fails to tell his readers is that the same report found that state funding, on an annualized basis, increased only 2.15% per year. How then did the UW come up with more money to hit that 5.7% increase? By hiking tuition, stepping up fund raising, and pulling in more federal funding.
    The state’s 2.15% annual increase looks puny in comparison. Tuition revenue, on the average, rose 8.56% per year, gifts and trust earnings climbed 6.15% per year and federal grants increased 7.59% per year.
    Not surprisingly, the state’s share of UW System funding dropped from about 34% to 24% in that ten year period. The dramatic shift explains why parents and students today have to dig so deeply into their pockets to pay for a UW education.
    Christian Schneider is a smart and entertaining writer, but he has so misrepresented the Legislative Fiscal Bureau report that I have wonder how many of his other points are also compromised by political agenda.

  2. Marc,

    While I appreciate the compliment, let me address some of your other points:

    First, you say my use of the LFB numbers are “misleading,” citing rising gifts and federal aid. But, in fact, I go through state GPR aid almost year by year, and I acknowledge the doubling of tuition in a decade. I’m not exactly sure how that’s “misleading.” Furthermore, it was Governor Jim Doyle who requested (and received, from a GOP Legislature) an 18% tuition increase for two successive years – so, to the extent that rising tuition causes families to “dig so deeply into their pockets,” I’m not sure how that can be pinned to WMC.

    In fact, your stat detailing the “falling” level of state support (from 34% to 24%) is the one that is truly misleading. If tuition, gifts, and federal aid increase faster, of course it looks like state aid is falling – when in fact, it actually has increased. (Part of this is due to Wiley’s prowess as a private fundraiser.) So, yes – GPR aid to the system has been a smaller part of the pie, but the pie has gotten a lot bigger.

    The fact that you would question my “political agenda” is amusing, as my post was a response to a ridiculously partisan cheap shot at the business community. I guess blaming WMC for today’s “toxic” politics without even acknowledging the millions spent by WEAC and the casino interests (not to mention the Greater Wisconsin Committee, One Wisconsin Now, etc.) doesn’t constitute a “political agenda.”

    Perhaps pinning every goofball idea any Republican introduces on WMC is perfectly fair. If so, it should go both ways. This session, Democratic Senator Jim Sullivan circulated a bill designating cheese as the “official state snack.” I blame WEAC, and wish they would quit wasting everyone’s time.

    Again, thanks for the comment – I always enjoy the pieces you write for WPRI.

  3. Christian: True, you did point out the increase in tuition revenue over the decade. And true there has been a modest increase in state funding over the decade. But I will stick to my point that state aid for the university system is seriously lagging when compared to the UW’s other revenue sources. This is undeniable. Post the Audit Bureau chart for your readers to see.

    Moreover, that aid “increase” may not even have equaled the cost-of-living increase for that decade. Todd Berry, head of the conservative-minded Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, made just that point about state funding during the Wiley tenure in a recent Wisconsin State Journal story.

    The reporters noted: “Lawmakers set aside $2.19 billion in state money for the University of Wisconsin System in the 2007-2009 budget, if recent spending cuts are included, according to the Legislature’s non-partisan budget office. That’s up about $157 million, or 7.7 percent, over the $2.03 billion budget for the state’s universities when Wiley took over as UW-Madison chancellor in 2001.

    “By contrast, inflation rose between 2 percent and 3 percent each year during Wiley’s tenure as UW-Madison’s costs increased and its enrollments grew, said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

    “‘However you slice it, they’ve had no real increases in funding from fiscal (year) 2001 to fiscal (year) 2007 and in real terms it’s been a decline,’ Berry said.”

    Lastly, your characterization of the Wiley article as “a ridiculously partisan cheap shot” is a cause for despair. Sure, it’s probably reflective of the insular world of conservative politics in Wisconsin. And sure neither the UW nor Wiley should be exempted from criticism.

    But Wiley has (perhaps too) bluntly identified one of the great failings of Wisconsin civic life today: WMC and the legislative Republicans failing to recognize the world-class UW-Madison campus as the state’s single most important asset in growing the economy.

    It is dumbfounding how badly things have deteriorated since the halcyon days when Mr. Republican, Tommy Thompson, worked with Ms. Liberal, Donna Shalala, to figure out a way to launch an unprecedented building expansion on the UW-Madison campus.

    As a character from a long ago sitcom used to say: “What a revoltin’ development this is!” Marc

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