Free Market Champion to Take Over as UW-Madison Chancellor

On Monday, Rebecca Blank was selected to be the next chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Blank currently serves as the Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce and has worked in the agency since 2009. Commenting her appointment, Blank said, “The University is integral to the economic future of the state and must continue to be a strong partner in the effort to create jobs and stimulate economic growth.”

Remarking on the recommendation of the UW Board of Regents committee, UW System President Kevin P. Reilly said, “Dr. Blank is uniquely prepared to lead UW-Madison, coming to us with broad national and international experience in roles where big science and big research intersect with job creation and commercialization.”

The Chancellor’s position was left open by the abrupt departure of Carolyn “Biddy” Martin in June 2011 following a failed attempt to partially privatize the state’s premier research and teaching institution. The New Badger Partnership deal was proposed as a solution to the devastating $250 million in budget cuts to the UW that Governor Scott Walker proposed for the 2011-2013 biennium.

The New Badger Partnership would have split UW-Madison off from the rest of the UW System and given it authority to raise money, set tuition, salaries and employment policies with its own separate governing board. Chancellor Martin justified the radical restructuring of the university this way: “With greater flexibility and efficiency, the university can strengthen its position as a job-generating enterprise for the state.”

That proposal was nixed during the final stages of the Joint Committee on Finance deliberations on the budget due to intense opposition from other UW System campuses, whose administrators viewed the deal as preferential treatment for Madison. Instead, a provision was added to the budget bill to allow all 26 UW campuses and the UW Extension to revamp human resource and personnel policies, a move made easier by the practical elimination of public sector labor unions earlier in the year by Walker’s infamous Act 10.

In a 2011 interview about the New Badger Partnership proposal, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, said, “I think this is part of a global effort to make sure the interests of business are served by education, and that the interests of those who want to deregulate and defund are served. It’s mostly about not having to take care of people.”

Blank’s appointment as UW-Madison Chancellor is an extension of that global effort, and as such serves as a coup de grace to the principles of the Wisconsin Idea on campus. Gone are the days when research, teaching, and outreach at UW-Madison were oriented toward improving the health, quality of life, the environment and agriculture for all citizens of the state. Now economic growth and commercialization in the service of “job creators” take pride of place as the institution’s guiding principles, and Blank is well positioned to promote them.

Blank has a strong record of developing and promoting neoliberal economic policies that put so-called free markets and the profits of large corporations ahead of the needs of people, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership for the Obama administration, and GATT and NAFTA as a member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors during the late 1990s.

News of her appointment was met with bipartisan praise from her current boss, President Barack Obama, and her future one, Governor Scott Walker. Said Obama, “A tireless advocate for American businesses, Becky has helped to increase our competitiveness, support our innovators and entrepreneurs, and bring good-paying jobs back to our shores.” Walker praised her “keen knowledge of economic issues that can help the UW promote great prosperity in the state.”

Agreement between Obama and Walker on her appointment is not surprising. On many education and workforce development issues, the two are in complete agreement. They both promote policies based on the assumption that the primary function of public education is to prepare students for the workforce. They also both use the fictitious “skills gap” – a purported misalignment between the skills required for vacant jobs and the skills possessed by people looking for work – as a justification for an inordinate amount of corporate influence in public policy.

Both Obama and Walker have championed high-stakes testing, charters and performance-based funding for k-12 schools, as well as the development of “longitudinal administrative databases that will integrate workforce data and create linkages to education data.”

One of the first bills Walker signed into law this year was his “Fast Forward” legislation that provides $15 million in grants to subsidize employee training costs for businesses, and $5 million to create a Labor Market Information database that will link up with the student tracking databases in both k-12 and state higher education institutions.

During a legislative hearing on the bill, one of its promoters urged its passage on the grounds that it was modeled after programs in Georgia and Louisiana that are considered to be the “gold standard” for integrating the needs of businesses into the public education system.

“Fast Forward” is one small piece of a master plan hatched over the past year by a small group of business people and their lobbyists that resulted in two reports urging a major overhaul of both public K-12 and higher education systems and the way in which workforce development activities are organized in the state. In essence, the plan is to turn public education institutions into publicly subsidized training, research and development organizations for private corporations, which will increasingly control the content and scope of curriculum and programming.

Plans for the UW System include targeting funding to performance benchmarks based on tracking students into particular careers, as well as a proposal to require that all research done on campus be justified by having a commercial application. Cutbacks in general state aid coupled with the new “tools” the university was given to revamp employment policies mean that the new chancellor will likely pursue three strategies to keep the institution afloat: raise tuition and fees for students, employ more part-time instructional staff instead of faculty, and seek out corporate donors to fund research.

The UW Board of Regents, itself stacked with Walker appointees, meets in early April to ratify Blank’s appointment.

Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.