UW shows tin ear on engineering demand

UW-logo-bigThe recent public disagreement within UW System on decentralized engineering degrees demonstrates one more time why its Madison-centricity is a bad idea.

Business leaders in northwestern Wisconsin have stated plainly and simply that they need more engineering graduates to propel prosperity in their parts of the state. They have asked for added degrees in mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering at UW – Stout, UW – Eau Claire and UW – River Falls.

The chancellors at those three campuses have offered to create a Northwest Wisconsin Engineering Consortium to share resources and add the engineering programs in an efficient manner.

As might be expected, some of the incumbents are opposing the move, and the inside-the-beltway managers of System seem to be stonewalling the initiative. Rebecca Blank, chancellor of UW – Madison, says it would draw students away from the Madison campus. Dennis Shields, chancellor of UW – Platteville, worries that the consortium might not be sustainable.

Credit UW — Platteville, one of five engineering degree shops in the state, for stepping up over the last decade to demand for applied engineering graduates, namely from businesses in the outlying regions of the state. Platteville offers outreach engineering degrees at three of the UW Colleges: Rock, Sheboygan and Washington. (UW – Milwaukee took a pass on that out-reach.)

Credit UW – Madison for also having a tin ear.

Economic development in Wisconsin is largely happening at the regional level. The regions are smart enough to know that it is engineers who are the fulcrum for business expansions, innovations and startups in their parts of the state. They know those three ingredients are the basis for new jobs, better wages and prosperity. The state could use a lot more engineers.

So why doesn’t Chancellor Blank listen to the leaders in those regions? The University was founded on the bedrock of the Wisconsin Idea, which says that the boundaries of the university (including the flagship campus) are the boundaries of the state.

We Badgers all love our world-class University of Wisconsin – Madison and what it does for the world. But it needs to be global-local. It needs do break-through research, turn out national leaders, but also tend to the needs of the state. It needs to multi-task. It should assist rather than thwart the engineering consortium, which will inevitably become a source of transfers and graduate engineering students for the high-end Madison campus.

Regents, take note: a lot of good students can’t get into Madison out of high school. A lot of them can’t afford to go UW – Madison; they need to live at home and start their college careers locally. They are place-bound for one reason or another.

Part of the erosion of the Wisconsin Idea is structural; part is cultural; part is financial.

Re the latter: Chancellor Blank and UW President Ray Cross have spent their early time in office dialing for dollars — speaking and lobbying for more funds for their institutions. There have been no bold ideas on the service side of that equation. In contrast, when business people are making a sale, they work hard to make sure their value proposition is what the customer wants. Then they ask for the order.

Re the culture: the prevailing mind-set at UW – Madison is self-congratulatory and self-serving. What’s good for UW – Madison is good for the state. Not necessarily vice versa.

Among other defects in that cocoon mentality is that it is not very smart politically. If they view the legislators are their customers, they may want to remember that most of them reside outside of Dane County, even those who are Badger alumni.

How often do you see a UW professor outside of Dane County?

Re the structure: If action on economic development is regional (it is), then shouldn’t System be organized regionally. Some of that alignment is already happening organically in Northeastern Wisconsin and the M7 Region. IfSystem were organized by regions, the engineering issue would have been resolved that level.

For example, the five UW campuses in the M7 Region could be grouped as a system within the System.

Such regional alignment would be decidedly different from the renewed proposal to split off UW – Madison from the rest of System. That concept is all about the money, since UW – Madison is sitting on $6 billion in off-balance sheet assets, and it doesn’t want to share them.

It has been 42 years since the last UW reorganization. As the engineering debate demonstrates, it is time for a blue ribbon commission to reassess the role of UW System in the state.

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  • Tom_Figel

    John, someone needs only a little familarity with Milwaukee in order to know the importance of engineering as not just a thread, but a cable, in all the plans for business expansion. As marketing and accounting are to Chicago, engineering training is to Milwaukee. What you are proposing – collaborative effort in serving Wisconsin students – seems vital to fulfillment of many Wisconsin growth aspirations.

  • Eric the Red

    The Madison campus isn’t “sitting on” any of the moneys you reference. The moneys are held by independent non-profit corporations — the UW Foundation and WARF. These two entities were formed by far-sighted alumni who knew that if the funds were under state control — which Torinus argues for — the funds would be squandered. (Remember how quickly two Governors and the Legislature wasted the tobacco settlement funds?) Think this through, John. Almost all of the cash in these funds is being held for specific purposes in support of the Madison campus, and they provide a critical advantage to the state’s only world-class research university as it struggles to maintain quality in an era of shrinking state support. We should be doing everything we reasonably can to strengthen and support the Madison campus, not stand on the sidelines and toss rocks as you do.

    Do you think that Stout, River Falls, and Eau Claire can support engineering programs which can be accredited, without a vast influx of new state revenue? The answer is no, and it is apparently shared by the Board of Regents.

    • JohnTorinus

      I assume you live in Dane County, where life is just swell.

      • Eric the Red

        Apparently you want to turn the Madison campus into the University of Idaho and “share the wealth.” John Torinus, the closet Communist.

  • Bill Kraus

    Hello, Biddie. Good buy, merger. After 45 years, you would think we would be thinking about exploiting the possibilities of merger a la your recommendation. There are still a lot of dead bodies that aren’t dead yet that have to be jumped over.

    • JohnTorinus

      Time for a few fresh ideas every 42 tears or so, right Bill?

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  • Tim Nixon

    John,
    A closet Communist? We have been friends for over 40 years, and I never suspected. Wait ’till I tell my wife.

    • Eric the Red

      Read what he proposes — taking money away from institutions which gathered it the old fashioned way and handing it out to others, based on his peculiar notions.

  • Roger Burton

    Shame on Chancellor Dennis J. Shields. He seems to want to run UW Platteville into the ground. Learn more at http://www.universitycorruption.com/