The Phantom 400

Posted in Weekly Newsletter on by .

phantomIt’s a safe assumption that comparatively few Wisconsin taxpayers have any clear idea how many people are employed by the University of Wisconsin. Developments this past week suggest that the list of those who don’t know the number of souls on the UW payroll may include the UW administration itself.

Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank issued a statement about budget cuts last week, including the dire announcement that some 400 positions at UW Madison would be eliminated for the 2015-16 academic year. Only later did it come to light that a majority of those positions are currently vacant—in the strictest sense of the word, not in the sense of disparaging actual employees holding jobs.

In fact, it turned out that the real number of living, breathing people to be laid off couldn’t be specified. At this stage of the game that might well be true. No doubt it should take some time to identify the positions or individuals who can be set aside with the least impact. But then why announce a big, draconian-sounding number now, without defensible facts in hand? Answer: Rewind three sentences to the word “game.”

Any large bureaucracy facing a serious challenge will reflexively circle the wagons and attempt to deflect—or better yet, shift—accountability, an axiom well-demonstrated by the UW’s full-on political assault against Governor Walker’s budget proposal offering the university greater autonomy in exchange for a reduction of taxpayer support.

Being micromanaged by government may sound to normal ears like an annoyance but nowadays, it is often a welcome substitute for exercising one’s own judgment and running one’s own risks—a condition that sadly is unique neither to the UW nor to the public sector.

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