The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scott Walker thinks my university has fat to trim. Yet my department is barely scraping by.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker delivers his state budget address Tuesday night.  The budget includes a $300 million cut to the Wisconsin university system. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via Associated Press)

You might think that one of the nation’s leading academic communication programs would be a good place to make a long-distance phone call.

Yet there I was on a cold January morning, the interview I needed to get less than 15 minutes away, panic mounting as each attempt to dial out on my department-issued speakerphone produced an electronic wail rather than a ring tone. I’m writing my dissertation on how Web sites owned by sports teams and leagues challenge our society’s most deeply held values about journalism. I collect my data by talking to the people who work for these sites. I need a working phone. My cell was acting as my voice recorder, so I couldn’t use it to make calls — not that the reception in my office is good enough to be trusted.

During one of the many rounds of budget cuts the University of Wisconsin has endured over the past few years, the department ended all nonessential long-distance service. This was essential to me, I explained to the front-office staff. I am hoping to log about 25 hours of interviews with people who are outside the university’s 608 area code. Long-distance phone calls cost less than 4 cents per minute; the entire project would cost about $60, surely something could be worked out? Could I pay for it myself? Write a grant? They didn’t think so.

There’s no using the telephone in, of all places, the communication department. The budget is too tight. The phone jack in my office is a vestige of a time when the state invested in higher education.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) formally proposed his 2015-17 state budget Tuesday night, but we’ve known since last week that it includes a $300 million cut for the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years. That’s a 13 percent reduction in state aid from the latest budget cycle. According to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, state aid accounted for about 17 percent of the campus budget in 2014-15. State support of the campus has fallen steadily since the 1970s, when it was 43 percent of the budget.

Walker says his budget is a trade — a drop in state support for an increase in administrative autonomy, as though $300 million can be made up through switching paper suppliers. When speaking to his Republican base, however, he has framed the proposal around retribution, going on talk radio in Milwaukee to troll the faculty about working more. Walker suggested they could teach another class each term, which sounds reasonable if you’ve never had to prepare a class. Professors in my department teach two courses per semester, unless they have grant money to cover their salary during a term.

Research is part of their jobs, though, and the grants they generate have kept the university afloat as state support gradually receded. Much of the rest of the UW system, a collection of 26 two- and four-year campuses, won’t be able to draw on research to plug the budget holes. The damage from Walker’s cuts will ripple outward from Madison, where it will hurt badly, to smaller campuses, where it will be devastating.

The UW system already has promised layoffs. This means a loss of jobs in communities around the state. These cuts are going to limit who has access to a UW education as the school admits a higher percentage of out-of-state students, currently limited to 27.5 percent. Wisconsin is cutting the budget at a time when neighboring states are restoring money to their university systems after years of austerity. Indiana and Ohio, which both have Republican governors, have increased university funding significantly since the depths of the recession.

The claim is that there is slack in the budget, but we graduate students don’t see it. We provide teaching and other support across campus, but few of us take home more than $15,000 per year. Day-to-day life for graduate students on campus is already defined by working around budget-imposed constraints. It’s little stuff, like 40 of us having to stretch a single printer cartridge for an entire semester. Or using office chairs that have been broken for 10 years.

Those little indignities are part of the charm of grad school. At least compared to what’s coming. I expect that some of our advisers will retire to try to help their departments absorb reductions. Some will just leave, taking their expertise and grant money with them. The advisees they leave behind will either try to follow or scramble for support. It will be ugly.

The good news is that some Republican legislators have expressed concern at the magnitude of the cuts, asking whether they imperil the UW’s mission and pointing to the likelihood of major tuition increases in 2017. The official legislative language released Wednesday eliminates a link between the university and the state that has been central to the university’s identity for a century.

I found a workaround for my phone problem. That day it involved using a phone line that turned out to belong to another unit in our building, so I shouldn’t have used it. The department staff found me a line in one of the research labs that should work, although it didn’t the first time. A professor on my PhD committee had just reactivated her own long-distance calling for research purposes and offered me the use of her phone, when she’s not using it. Or I can use Skype, which is glitchy and takes lousy recordings on the computer I’m holding together with masking tape. I’ll be able to get the job done, but barely. Sort of like what the university has done in the past few years.

And now, it’s about to get worse.