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What Do Wisconsin's Battles Over Higher Education & Right-to-Work Have in Common?

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Wisconsin is experiencing two major political battles right now – right-to-work and higher education funding. They’re debates that largely skew down partisan lines. But one analyst says they actually have similarities that go deeper.

Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says momentum started long before Gov. Scott Walker.

He argues that the push for right-to-work states is not just a Wisconsin battle. "About half the states, about 24, have right-to-work laws," he says. "This has been going on for 60 to 70 years."

"I think it is just an opportunity when you get Republicans representing the business community - and business simply hates unions...so when they get the opportunity they want to get in these right-to-work laws because it weakens unions. I don't think this has anything to do particularly with the times, expect that we have a lot of Republican controlled state houses," Longworth says.

He says that the decline in state funded universities has also been going on for years. "Back in 1976, the state of Wisconsin provided 44% of the budget of the University of Wisconsin - Madison," Longworth says. "That is now down to 17% - closing in on about 1/3 of what it was about 40 years ago."

"At what point does the University of Wisconsin stop being a public university in the sense that the public, the state, supports it? What does that do to change its mission?," he asks. "Other states are facing the same thing."

The idea used to be that the state and its universities were one and the same. "The universities educated kids in the state and guided the economy from that state and in return, the state supported the universities," he says.  

Longworth believes the trend today speaks to the larger phenomenon of the development of regionally based economies.  

"State lines don't mean much anymore - economically or educationally," he says. "Maybe, to cut off the state funding, to cut the state universities free, to turn them – in essence – into private schools, free to serve an extended population, to take on an extended responsibility, is only realistic."

The idea of transitioning the UW system to a public authority has been vigorously opposed by many faculty members.  In an open letter to UW system President Ray Cross, some 70 faculty argue that "there is no evidence as to how these tools function or what impacts they will achieve."