Who’s a Badger?

Across the nation, flagship public universities are rethinking who they are in response to declining state support, their aspirations to compete with their “peers,” and various pressures to perform on many accountability metrics.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is no exception. While this spring saw a great deal of attention paid to the Wisconsin Idea and what it means, there’s another shift underfoot that is just as fundamental but isn’t getting much attention. Who is — and who gets to be — a Badger?

Beginning with the installation of former Chancellor Biddy Martin in 2008 and continuing under current Chancellor Rebecca Blank, UW-Madison is shifting its “enrollment management” strategies. This includes decisions about who is recruited, admitted, and yielded (e.g. who accept the offer of admission). In 2010, Biddy Martin hired a new Director of Admissions — Adele Brumfield — an African-American woman who grew up in Milwaukee and worked at the University of Chicago before coming to Madison. In addition, the university began charging more tuition (thanks to the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which was passed with student approval following heavy lobbying by the Administration, causing Martin to thank the graduating class of 2009 at their final ceremony for having the “wisdom” to raise tuition to “save” their university), and investing more money in need-based financial aid (an effort they said “held harmless” low-income students even though it has never fully offset the price increases).

I watched all of these changes up close, as a member and then chair of the Committee for Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid (CURAFA). I listened to the rationales presented for shifts, examined the data presented (whenever numbers were actually made available), and worked with members to fulfill our duties as a shared governance committee to provide a counterbalance to the clear desires of the Administration to use students to raise revenue & institutional prestige.

We mainly failed. We were outgunned. Despite offering numerous reports and recommendations that UW-Madison recommit itself to the education of Wisconsin residents from all walks of life, over time enrollment has shifted further and further towards economically-advantaged students. The percent from out-of-state has grown, the percent of first-generation students has declined, and we’ve made very little progress enrolling more underrepresented students of color (just 2% of our students are African American and just 5% are Hispanic or Latin@ — numbers that any 21st century university should be utterly ashamed of).

Here’s change over time in the Percent of UW-Madison New Freshmen Who Are First-Generation. (Reminder: BiddyMartin-the-first-gen-student took office in 2008)

This decline is not an accident. In 2009, 49.7% of the 2,1,51 first-generation students who applied to UW-Madison were admitted, but in 2015 just 42.8% of the 2,024 first-gen applicants were admitted. Yield fell sharply as well during that time, from about 53% to under 48%. (No surprise, as net price of attending Madison went up a lot over that time, even as real family income slid). So in 2015, at a time when supposedly socioeconomic diversity was more important than ever to UW-Madison (and the nation), UW-Madison enrolled its smallest class of first gen students in more than a decade — just 968 people. What’s the matter, those fabulous striving students, reaching for a better life by becoming a Badger just aren’t good enough?

Well, no, UW-Madison just has “other priorities.” (I’m told this all the time — my priorities aren’t the institution’s. Well, UW-Madison’s aren’t the state’s). For example between 2009 and 2015, it recruited an additional 2,948 international student applicants (& another 4,378 domestic nonresidents) and expanded the fraction it admitted. In 2009, just 4.8% of the first year class was international, while in 2015 it was 7.9%. That time recruiting was apparently pricey for Wisconsin residents, whose number of applications didn’t budge over that time — even as more students went to college (For the record, for at least a decade students all over the state, and especially in Milwaukee, in rural areas, and in tribes, have been saying that they never hear from UW-Madison Admissions).

There have been more subtle changes as well, as Admissions argues that Wisconsin “cannot find” sufficient numbers of “qualified” students and must instead look elsewhere — even making the case that Wisconsin students would be “badly served” by attending Madison, where’d they be “in over their heads.” This language, offered in meeting after meeting, is “code” — instead of saying that black students from Milwaukee can’t hack it at Madison, we’re told that “MPS isn’t getting the job done” and we don’t want to “do students a disservice by admitting them” especially when “we can’t afford to support them.” (These are direct quotes from my personal notes on conversations held with Admissions staff).

These statements boggle the mind. UW-Madison has more resources on a per-student basis than any other university in the state. It’s the only public university in the state with a sizable endowment. If it’s honestly ill-equipped to serve students, who can afford to? Where else are we suggesting they go? (UW-Milwaukee, which enrolls the greatest % of students of color and low-income students is the most economically fragile university with the highest net price). Moreover, who’s established the so-called qualifications for being admitted to and performing at the university with more so-called talent in its faculty & staff than anywhere else? What’s with the adherence to the same old models of education & admissions criteria that Madison’s used for decades — in light of major rethinking of such things elsewhere? What’s with the claims about a lack of potential students using birth cohort data, despite the fact that high school graduation and college continuation rates continue to rise — making the potential pool ever more substantial?

None of it is rational. It’s all an excuse to spend more time recruiting students in the Atlanta and New York suburbs, where Admissions can find students who can add to “diversity” while being able to pay top dollar — so they can profit and raise their retention rates all at the same time. So we can then claim to have “raised” our success rates even though all we did was game the inputs — who became a Badger.

(Let’s be clear — White folks like me aren’t supposed to say these things around here. We aren’t People of Color. So we must yield to Ms. Brumfield. Just like we were told to yield to Chancellor Martin, who herself was a first-generation student. Because, you know, having an identity means knowing how to make good policy for all people with that identity…)

And the Administration is not done. After all, Chancellor Blank is in Miami right now delivering her remarks about “Managing Big Public Institutions: Stories from the Front Lines” at a national conference! — where she’s winning an award for her work on (…wait for it…) poverty! This fall, she sought and gained approval to eliminate the cap on out-of-state students entirely. Without going to CURAFA — the shared gov committee tasked with considering such things. She also told the campus that we were “underpriced” and should be more expensive. She then spoke at open meetings about the importance of providing financial aid to out-of-state students not based on need — again, without going to CURAFA, the shared gov committee tasked with considering such things. That’s a 1980s strategy shunned by all forward-thinking progressive university leaders…that apparently drives down the production of STEM degrees. But ok then… And there’s more. This fall there was also a search for a new financial aid director. It failed. But this is ok with the Administration because it announced — at a University Committee meeting last week — that it’s “rethinking” enrollment management. Really? No Kidding. But again, without going to CURAFA.

The Administration has a plan for that too. On Monday, the UC will be discussing “CURAFA’s membership and charge.” Interesting — members of CURAFA don’t know why or what it’s about — and were not informed. It’s clear that the UW-Madison Administration wants to/ ALREADY IS redefine/redefining who is a Badger. And despite Blank’s pledges to honor shared governance — after it was eliminated in state law under her watch — she is not. She’s simply redefining it. And in doing so, she’s selling out the people of Wisconsin, who built UW-Madison in the first place.

Times like these define and determine our futures. Who gets to be a Badger? Who is gets to decide? Is anyone even looking? Clearly, some hope not.