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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Steve Nass, ideological warrior
State rep renews attack on left-leaning campus programs
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Michael Mikalsen (left), with Steve Nass: 'Is the Havens Center sponsoring programs that most
taxpayers would never support?'
Michael Mikalsen (left), with Steve Nass: 'Is the Havens Center sponsoring programs that most taxpayers would never support?'
Credit:Carolyn Fath / 2007 Photo

Steve Nass has never made a secret of his dislike for the UW-Madison Havens Center and School for Workers. Back in 2007, the Republican state rep proposed completely eliminating state funding for both. Now, as chair of the Assembly's Colleges and Universities Committee in an era of total GOP control, he's in a position to make that happen.

"The concern, particularly with the Havens Center," says Nass aide Michael Mikalsen, "is that they have a certain ideology that they are trying to advance. And that's not the role of a taxpayer-funded center."

That same rationale applied in 2007, when Nass and other representatives helped craft an Assembly budget that would have defunded not only the Havens Center and School for Workers but also the UW Law School. (The chief legislative proponent, Frank Lasee, called lawyers a "plague of locusts.") It also proposed partial cuts to Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.

Each of the proposals fell away during budget compromise talks with the Democrat-dominated Senate, prompting some to wonder whether the Republicans were serious or just wanted bargaining chips.

When it comes to the Havens Center and School for Workers, Steve Nass is serious.

"When you look at some of these areas where money is being wasted on the UW campus," says Mikalsen, "those can no longer be allowed to continue when we're making decisions in other areas."

Although Mikalsen says some decreases may be in the future of WPR and WPT, it's the Havens Center and School for Workers that Nass wants to see lose all state support.

"The Havens Center has a history of running conferences that are highly controversial," says Mikalsen, "not something state funds have any business paying for."

The Havens Center, founded in 1984, first raised Nass' ire in 2006 when it sponsored a campus forum that included lecturer Kevin Barrett, a member of Scholars for 9/11 Truth. [The print version of this article used a different identification.] Today, Mikalsen blasts center programs he says promote a socialist ideology.

The center operates on an annual budget of approximately $125,000, according to its administrative director, Patrick Barrett. Its paid staff of three Barrett and two half-time grad students - coordinate lectures and forums the center sponsors.

You don't have to look far to find the source of Mikalsen's complaint. This academic year's lecture series is titled "Renewing Socialism in the 21st Century."

Chides Mikalsen, "You have to ask yourself, is the Havens Center sponsoring programs that most taxpayers would never support, would never give a dollar to?"

Professor Erik Wright, the Havens Center director, says such programs are simply part of an "intellectually open and engaging center for political perspectives on social justice, democracy and inequality." He maintains that the center "has not been dominated at all by ideological, dogmatic perspectives, but by discussion, debate and dialogue.... Anybody who has come to our events would describe it that way."

Wright denies that having the center study an ideology means taxpayers are supporting it. He says the Havens Center is focused on "ideas that are of crucial importance to understanding the way the world works."

Similarly, Wright says he appreciates that the UW Business School "provides perspective on one set of issues," even though he doesn't always agree.

If lawmakers pursue defunding, Wright says, he hopes the university will come to the Havens Center's defense.

"We've been an integral part of the academic and intellectual scene for 30 years," says Wright. "I think the university would consider it an assault on its integrity, not just an attack on the program."

So far, university officials have not responded, possibly because Nass has yet to contact either the system or specific programs he intends to defund about his intentions.

Meanwhile, School for Workers director Corliss Olson doesn't understand what her program is doing in the crosshairs.

"We're little, very little," she says, noting that the school has a staff of just seven and a $500,000 budget, paid through the UW-Extension.

Moreover, Olson says, defunding a school that supports workers seems contrary to the state GOP's agenda: "We have this urgent need to create jobs. Our bias is that they ought to be good jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage."

To this end, says Olson, the school annually serves 4,000 to 5,000 people statewide, helping teach workers about the law and their rights. Faculty members also work with unions and management to resolve conflicts and build stronger workplaces.

The school found itself on Nass' blacklist in 2006 for links between Prof. Frank Emspak and the Workers Independent New Services (see Isthmus story, 8/18/06).

"The first time this was being addressed, there was some concern that the School for Workers was trying to promote specific political, ideological positions," says Mikalsen. "Some of its activities crossed over from being educational to being an agenda-ized service for labor propaganda."

Mikalsen admits the school's activities are "less overt" than in the past, but he still supports defunding.

"Lesser priorities like the School for Workers will have to find other ways to survive," says Mikalsen. "The School for Workers is a program that has the ability to charge fees; it has the ability to become self-sustaining."

As Mikalsen takes pains to explain, "defunding" means removing a program's access to the state's general purpose revenue (GPR). It does not mean a given program cannot exist, simply that it will not be taxpayer-funded.

In Mikalsen's words, "If people can pay, so be it."

But, according to Olson, losing state funding would likely be a death knell for the School of Workers: "[GPR funding] is a foundational piece of what we do and part of what allows us to build programming and do outreach."

She adds that the program, by its very nature, serves people who are not in a position to sustain it through fees.

The Havens Center is in a similar situation.

"I haven't given a thought to getting core funding outside the university," admits Wright. "It's conceivable that the state Legislature could possibly destroy this center."

To Mikalsen, this kind of talk is typical.

"If every program said that, we wouldn't be able to fix the fiscal crisis," he says. "The UW System is always wanting to spend more rather than reduce funding to non-priority systems."

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