Ideological Bias and No Confidence Votes, Oh My!

I generally do not write about higher education in Wisconsin. There are a couple of reasons why. First, I am not an expert in this field, K-12 education and public/nonprofit administration are more in my wheelhouse. Second, I work in higher education, in Wisconsin, so naturally my thoughts need to be taken with a grain of salt…I have a horse in this race. However, some people asked my opinion about some recent developments, so I figured I would weigh in.

First, the UW-Madison faculty is getting close to taking a vote of no confidence in the UW system president and board of regents. UW-Madison’s chancellor came out against the vote. I personally would not sign on to such a vote. This is not because I am in favor of the changes to tenure, in fact, I wrote about my opposition late last year. However, working for a public organization means being governed by the public. And, as those familiar with Public Administration can attest, the marriage between politics and the administration of public goods is a messy one. Perhaps I am a bit naïve, but if the broader public disagrees with these changes it will eventually result in political change. To put in another way, I am fine letting democracy do its thing.

I also think a vote of no confidence is a strategic mistake. I get it, if you work for the UW system (like I do), these changes are stressful and worrisome. It is hard feeling helpless about having your working conditions changed for reasons unrelated to your performance. It is natural to want to do something. But the optics of a no confidence vote are awful. For most people, telling your employer you have no confidence in their leadership is the last step before you quit or are fired. For most Wisconsinites, this action will be viewed as either totally irrelevant, or as evidence of the need to reform higher education.   Simply, I see no upside.

The second development is the release of a WPRI (my former employer) magazine issue focused on Wisconsin’s higher education system. Specifically, the issue features a roundtable discussion about ideological bias on UW system campuses. I do think this is an important topic. Public institutions should reflect the diversity of the publics they serve. I personally would be horrified if my students felt I was intolerant of their views because of who they were or what they believed. But, I do think accusing the UW system of ideological indoctrination is a bit over the top. I hold two degrees from UW-Milwaukee and never felt like I was being indoctrinated, or that I could not express my views in the course of completing my academic program. My professors knew full well I was working for a school choice advocacy group, and not once did it become an issue.

My personal experience as a student and as a teacher, of course, is just that…my experience. Perhaps I am the exception and not the rule. What really worries about the WPRI articles is the solution, not the identification of a problem. The solution given is a combination of increased use of massive open online courses, “downsizing” of public universities, the elimination of “worthless” degrees, and focus on shorter time to completion for students. Together these steps amount to limiting student exposure to potentially biased professors as opposed to actually addressing ideological bias in higher education.

Perhaps the university model does need changing, but the rationale should not be anecdotes of bias at two UW system universities.   I would like to see the student body surveyed to find out how they are actually feeling. Results could be used to identify if, when, and where bias concerns arise. Seems simple, I know, but steps to address ideological bias will not work until the problem is identified an understood. Unfortunately, I feel this is another example of reacting to legitimate concerns about the performance of public organizations by dismantling them, rather than addressing the problem.

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