Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Stephen Kercher's report and commentary on the Budget forum

Stephen posted this insightful comment on the budget forum and Underheim's bitter rhetoric to the university discussion list:

Those of us who attended yesterday’s forum on the “Crisis in the
Public University” are more than likely being asked by their students
what they “think” about Representative Gregg Underheim and his
position on public funding for the UW system.

How does one reply? How does one not betray the anger and
frustration that many of us felt in Reeve 202 as Representative
Underheim circumvented the strict code of civility that Dave Siemers
rightly attempted to maintain and dismissed Susan McFadden as a
starry-eyed idealist who foolishly believes that money grows on
trees. (Perhaps Dave applied the code a little too zealously. I
don’t think the student Shannon was wrong to suggest that there was a
strong hint of condescension in Underheim’s delivery.)

What follows is a free-wheeling, opinionated take on the subject of
yesterday’s forum. Please read on if you are interested.

To begin, it seems to me that inquiring students might think of the
ways that Gregg Underheim embodies the prerogatives of America’s
conservative movement. Having exhausted hope in the public sector,
conservatives of Underheim’s stripe hold out as models for public
policy corporate, managerial modes borrowed from the country’s
largest private-sector employer, Wal-Wart. With the example of Wal- Wart as a guide, conservatives promise to pursue “economies of scale”
and follow the “law of diminishing returns.” But, as Andrew
Schroeder and many others point out, the fallout of Hurricane Katrina
demonstrates the pitfalls of providing public services on the cheap.

Witness too Representative Underheim’s pseudo-populist stance—another
hallmark of the modern conservative. The public policy question
forced by today’s budget crisis, Underheim told us yesterday, is
whether the less well-off should be forced to support the tuition of
the pampered middle-class students who attend our classes. Mr.
Underheim is a frequent visitor to our campus (he once dropped in
(unannounced and uninvited) to a lecture I delivered on the Watergate
crisis)), and he ought to know that many of our students are the
offspring of the working-class families for whom he claims to represent.

I have reason to believe that Representative Underheim, like many
conservatives, have the interests of the wealthy, not the poor, at
heart on this issue. Many working-class families who send their
children to our university understand, as Michael Zimmerman reminded
us, that our institution will provide them with their best hope for
upward mobility. It is in the perceived best interest of many
wealthy, more ideologically conservative constituents to ratify our
faith in the “free market,” extol the virtues of privatization and,
not least, make substantial cuts to their tax burden. Unfortunately
for us, this agenda has helped undermine the public’s faith in the
public sector. Mr. Underheim’s political strength is a grim reminder
of this fact.

What many wealthy, ideologically conservative Wisconsites believe on
this issue—and a few of them, embolded by stiff drinks, have not been
afraid to confess it to this university professor in public—is that
the University System (big, bloated, and wasteful) is a drain on
taxpayers who have no intention of sending their children to a public
school. Underheim, I would guess, represents these citizens’
concerns more than he does others. I think Underheim’s description
of Milwaukee—read BLACK Milwaukee—as a “drain” on public resources,
as Susan McFadden astutely pointed out, confirms this impression—in
my mind anyway.

What conservatives like Underheim won’t fess up to is a deliberate
agenda to cut public spending by “starving the beast.” In an age of
economic downturns, bloated budget deficits and cowardly politicians
(who in their right mind, people ask, would have the courage to raise
new public revenue?) we are stuck with Underheim’s politics of
despair and cynicism.

Yet I think that students should also know that things don’t have to
be this way. Students would be well served to revisit the tradition
of the Wisconsin Idea, to acquaint themselves with that chapter in
the history of American social thought when proto-progressives took
on the Social Darwinist “realists” and imagined a new public role for
universities and the state, to read Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s
description of a new “politics of hope” at the dawn of the 1960s, as
well as many other articulate, idealistic responses Americans have
made to the conservative status quo in our history.

In the end, perhaps Susan McFadden was not the starry-eyed idealist
in the crowd but one of the few REAL realists. By yielding to
Underheim’s cynical social vision, his empty and destructive politics
of division, progress in the state of Wisconsin will be thwarted. To
grow our economy, ensure social justice and improve the quality of
life for all people in Wisconsin, we are obligated to not swallow the
pills Underheim his fellow “realists” prescribe for us. There are
other visions, other solutions, other paradigms.

For those students who may despair at the bleak picture painted
yesterday, they should be encouraged to take heart. Newt Gingrich’s
conservative revolution was stalled by the American public’s healthy
skepticism of where it might lead them. And we can be thankful that
Wisconsin’s citizenry had the good sense not to elect Underheim State
Superintendent of Public Instruction. As the parent of two children
educated in area public schools, I’d rather them learn at the hands
of a real-time teacher than the experts popping up on children’s
laptops in Albuquerque.

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