Scott Walker — destroyer or savior of higher education?

by Grace

In defending his proposal to cut Wisconsin’s higher education budget by $300 million over two years, Governor Scott Walker admonished professors to “work harder”.

“Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work and this authority frees up the [University of Wisconsin] administration to make those sorts of requests,” …

Maybe he should have focused more on administrative costs, which have far outpaced instructional costs in American universities.

But now comes word from UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank that the cuts would come in the form of layoffs of administrative personnel”.

Deans, directors and department heads will be responsible for making decisions on how budget cuts are allocated, but administrative units will take will take larger cuts in an effort to preserve educational functions, she said.

It seems that common sense may prevail, but concern remains that the governor and possible presidential candidate may be trying to kill liberal arts education.

Walker proposed to rewrite the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement. He apparently wanted to strip out its frills (stuff like “extended training,” “public service,” improving “the human condition,” and “the search for truth”) and inject it with a more practical goal: meeting “the state’s workforce needs.”

Walker later backtracked and ‘blamed the changes on a last-minute “drafting error”‘.  But skeptics remain suspicious that liberal arts will increasingly take a back seat to vocational programs.

Liberal-arts and humanities programs at public universities are increasingly under siege as state legislatures cut the institutions’ funding, forcing school administrators to make tough decisions about what to eliminate. The obvious targets are the programs that yield a lower return on investment—at least in a concrete, monetary sense—and are more nebulous in their impact on the economy. What sounds like it has more dollar signs and productivity attached to it: philosophy or America’s favorite new acronym, STEM?

Maybe these critics should also focus on New York’s Democratic Governor Cuomo, who has pushed for increased funding of vocational programs in state colleges, and incentivized partnerships between business and schools that promote workforce training through his START-UP NY initiative.  Cuomo also established a STEM scholarship program last year.

I have not heard of any states pouring additional resources into liberal arts higher education.  Which may be a shame, but is understandable.

This workforce-centric approach “is designed for short-term learning and long-term disaster.”

The problem is that, unlike most STEM fields, universities have lowered standards for liberal arts education.

In theory, a college liberal arts degree is a valuable commodity in the job market. In reality, the way colleges have diluted the curriculum means a liberal arts degree offers little added value in qualifying workers for today’s job market.

So the question is, who is actually trying to kill liberal arts education?


Lucy McCalmont, “Scott Walker urges professors to work harder”, Politico, January 29, 2015.

Ann Althouse, “How will the University of Wisconsin—Madison absorb something like $90 million in cuts from Scott Walker’s new budget?”, Althouse, February 12, 2015.

Alia Wongfeb, “The Governor Who (Maybe) Tried to Kill Liberal-Arts Education”, Atlantic, February 11, 2015.

15 Comments to “Scott Walker — destroyer or savior of higher education?”

  1. At a recent meeting, I just heard some shocking statistics. During the last 25 years, our tuition has skyrocketed, just as everyone’s has. Someone actually decided to do a careful study of costs, and found that during that period, spending on instructional costs went up 80%, and on non instructional costs, spending went up 350%. I know that some of that increase has to do with increased spending on IT, which I don’t think anyone would argue with. But I suspect there is some low hanging fruit there for cost cutting. I also suspect that the breakdown in spending increases will be similar for other private non-profit universities.


  2. One thing you should realize is that those “easy” liberal arts degrees are dealing with the products of the disastrous K12 system. The kids who come out needing remedial math, or even the ones who barely escaped remedial, can’t go into the STEM majors. They have to go somewhere, so they end up in a lot of majors like communications or sports management or worst of all, general “liberal arts”. You can say “don’t admit them” all you want, but in the public university system, there is tremendous demand for access – demand that can determine who becomes governor. And really, they do need to end up somewhere. Public higher ed has become the last stop, the institution that is being asked to fix all the ills of K12.


  3. Cuomo’s STEM scholarship program is so badly designed, I don’t think anyone should be looking to it as a model


  4. “some low hanging fruit there for cost cutting”

    Yup, you know there is!


  5. “there is tremendous demand for access – demand that can determine who becomes governor”

    I’d like to see more politicians oppose policies that allow access (through taxpayer funds) to any and all students, even ones who are not prepared for college work and who tend to end up in easier liberal arts majors.


  6. It’s not news, tenure-track and adjunct faculty live and die by student evaluations. Even in the 90s when I quit teaching philosophy this was becoming true. Assign Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and ask for a decent exposition and analysis, and you’ll just be crying in your beer when you read the essays and then the student evals. So much simpler to just ask everyone how they feel about morality. Gag.


  7. RMS — And it seems NOBODY, not administration nor government, supports high standards. Employers complain about graduates who lack basic skills, but that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I can’t blame teachers who just go with the flow.


  8. Employers can complain but if they aren’t willing to get some skin in the game, they have no power. It seems to me that they just want a free product.


  9. Grace, the general public doesn’t want high standards either. They want a nice place where they can send their B average kids without demanding too much of anyone. Which is exactly what they want from K12 too, hence the disaster. The main reason STEM fields can keep standards up is because of the greater role of accreditation, amd also the fact that many STEM grads want to get accepted to medical school.


  10. And STEM programs cost a lot more. Those easy liberal arts programs are CHEAP, so there is pressure to keep high enrollments in liberal arts.


  11. “The main reason STEM fields can keep standards up is because of the greater role of accreditation”

    What is the employer’s role in this? Don’t employers demand standards in these fields?


  12. IN CS, employers certainly have a role in keeping standards up, because of the technical interviews. Many CS programs, including ours, have industrial advisory boards too. I think employers are often deeply involved in many engineering programs. In the sciences, though, students do not go directly to employment – they usually go to grad school. So in those fields, grad school standards are important.


  13. I think standards are more straightforward, and more objective, in STEM fields. This makes a difference in maintaining them. They’re harder to fudge, at least most of the time.


  14. I am not convinced that we are really that much more objective. I could water my CS courses down a lot without anyone noticing. But we want ABET accreditation, so we can’t. And we want our students to get jobs, and the employers ARE more demanding in our field. Maybe in the humanities, it is just easier to snow the employers


  15. I agree that in some respects STEM standards are not so objective, but for the most part they are definitely more so than the humanities. I say this as a former English major who was sick of the wishy-washy nature of my courses, but then found that as working scientist my arguments for drilling prospects could include many subjective elements.

    Employers want critical thinkers and good communicators, but it’s hard for employers to assess that in the in hiring process.


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