Next UW prez should be seasoned executive

University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly (AP File Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mike De Sisti)

University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly (AP File Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mike De Sisti)

The search for a replacement for Kevin Reilly as UW System president gives the board of regents a chance to take a hard look at where the system finds itself in a rapidly changing world.

As they come to conclusions about where the UW System needs to go in the next decade, it will determine what the profile of the next president should be.

The time-honored answer for the presidency was to pick an academic with a modicum of administrative and leadership chops. Reilly, who has held the job for almost a decade, is an Irish literature scholar who had been head of UW Extension. His predecessor Katharine Lyall, who also served for about a decade, is a labor economist who had been an executive in the UW System.

There is every reason to expect that the next president will serve a decade or so. So what macro trends will the new president face over the next ten years? Here are a few that leap to mind:

• University finances will continue to be stressed as health costs chew up revenue increases coming into state coffers and claim an ever-larger portion of each campus’ budget. The university and other societal priorities will be crowded out until the state’s political leaders muster the gumption to start managing health cost inflation. That could take a while.

• For the same reasons, tuitions will keep rising to cover the out-of-control costs, and that trend will meet with increasing resentment of parents and students.

• Parents and students will look to alternate ways to get an education without loading a young person with a lifetime of debt. Free online education is just one example of such an alternative. The new UW Flexible Degree is one response.

• Pressure is already growing for more sophisticated financial management of the university’s sprawling assets. As an example, off-balance sheet foundations in Madison already hold more than $6 billion in assets. The next UW leader will have to start managing the system’s balance sheet on a consolidated basis. The recent flap over the appropriate level of reserves is another example of that financial management challenge.

• Revenue from sources other than state taxes and tuition will be needed to keep the state’s 26 UW campuses viable. The best-endowed universities in the country are those with the most successful entrepreneurs as alumni. In general, the UW System has lagged in promoting startups. Recent efforts are promising, but UW is still way behind universities that understand technology transfer means startups, not just patents and licenses.

• Global issues from economic to war and peace will have to be in the curriculum for a world-class university as it trains our next generation of leaders.

These challenges call for a new university’s business model. Other industries, such as health care, publishing, airlines, information technology and retail, face similar disruptions in their business models.

It will take a nimble strategic leader to assess the trends, devise a strategy and then to execute the transition to a new model. That would point to a president who has trained to be an executive, but also with a deft political hand. Someone like Mitch Daniels, a former business executive, White House budget czar, governor of Indiana and now head of Purdue University, comes to mind.

Most business executives would not fit the bill, but some would. So would some non-profit executives and some political leaders. In his prime, Tommy Thompson had that kind of profile. Steve Bablitch, a seasoned executive in the private, public and non-profit spheres, could do the job. UW Milwaukee Chancellor Mike Lovell has demonstrated an ability to engage the business world as partners in making education more engaged and entrepreneurial. GE produces politically adept executives with a worldview.

One profile that will not work is that of a caretaker, a steward of the status quo. The gale winds blowing at the university demand a leader for the decade who can see the opportunities more than the challenges, who can shape the resources of the state’s best asset to a refreshed vision.

This entry was posted in Business and Education. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Badger Backer

    “Pressure is already growing for more sophisticated financial management of the university’s sprawling assets. As an example, off-balance sheet foundations in Madison already hold more than $6 billion in assets. The next UW leader will have to start managing the system’s balance sheet on a consolidated basis. The recent flap over the appropriate level of reserves is another example of that financial management challenge.”

    Johnny-One-Note blows the same worn-out horn once again.

    The “off-balance sheet foundations in Madison” are non-profit entities which are independent of state control or influence. They — the Wisconsin Alumni Association (1861), WARF (1925), and the UW Foundation (1945) — were set up by Madison campus alumni concerned about maintaining excellence in the face of then-current threats to sufficient continuing state support.

    These are not “System assets” — they have provided the critical difference for the Madison campus and must be left alone. They are the difference between excellence and mediocrity.

    Remember how quickly Governors and State Legislators of BOTH parties ran through the tobacco settlement money?

    Wisconsin is a small, poor state. We are lucky to have a world-class research campus within our borders, John. You should thank your lucky stars that we have it and do all you can to help maintain it!

    • JohnTorinus

      You make a good point. My wife complains about my one notes, too.

      • Badger Backer

        Glad to learn you are coming over to my side. Let me amplify my comments.

        The Wisconsin Alumni Association was formed during the Civil War, when alumni grew concerned that the burden of supporting our state’s soldiers would cause the Governor and Legislature to limit the state’s UW appropriation. The WAA was formed to actively lobby for sufficient state support.

        WARF was formed by concerned alumni in 1925, when it appeared that the Board of Regents would refuse to permit the patenting of Steenbock’s Vitamin D invention. As a result, the world’s first university patent licensing entity was created.

        The UW Foundation was founded in 1945, when a group of alumni became concerned that the state would not have the resources to adequately support the UW when the soldiers and sailors returned from war and took advantage of the GI bill.

        Each of these entities has helped the Madison campus differentiate itself from the other campuses in the state and to maintain its place as a leading research university in the world. (Remember that the Madison campus was a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900 — the only other public university founding members were Cal-Berkeley and Michigan. The point: the Madison campus has been recognized as a world-class institution for more than a century.)

        No good can come from attempting to confiscate and “Systemize” the assets of these unique support groups. Without them, the Madison campus would likely be the University of Idaho.

        On, Wisconsin!

        • Frank Rojas

          Great stuff BB. So few in Wiscosnin really understand what a great asset UW Madison is to the state and larger society. Plenty of successful firms have been started by UW alums and those firms are all over the world–not just in Wisconsin. Thankfully the loyal alumni of UW Madison-wherever they may live-have made it a priority to maintain the quality of the UW often in spite of the lack of similar dedication by the state’s residents and their politicians. Quality does not come cheap and UW has done it more cheaply and efficiently than most universities of similar renown. And thank God the UW has its major support groups set-up so that the short-sighted politicians down State Street cannot get their grabby mitts on them.

          • JohnTorinus

            Again, good points.

            But I stick to my concept that UW Madison, into which state taxpayers have invested billions, has a statewide mission on the demand side of the economy. It has to help with job creation across the state, not just Dane County. It would be politically foolish not to follow the Wisconsin Idea in that dimension to the boundaries of the state.
            An example would be how UW Madison has embraced the agri-business cluster from its get-go until today.
            P.S. GPR support for the flagship campus, though flagging, still far outweigh the contributions from the various foundations in Madison.

          • Badger Backer

            Of course, John. Remember that the “Wisconsin Idea” is a creation of the Madison campus. Professors have been helping business solve problems since research first began on campus. Here’s a press release issued today which highlights ongoing efforts to strengthen ties between the campus and Wisconsin businesses. Maybe you should attend? Note that General Electric is one of the most prolific campus partners, using Madison researchers to help develop its next generation of imaging products (just like its current and earlier products were the result of Madison research).


            CONTACT: Charles Hoslet, 608-263-2840,


            MADISON – UW-Madison’s second annual Corporate Open House, where companies are invited to campus to learn more about innovative opportunities for research, projects, talent, training and potential partnerships, will be held on Thursday, Aug. 22 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton St.

            The open house agenda and registration link can be found at

            The day will offer a variety of opportunities to learn, network and interact with UW and business partners who already benefit from their corporate relationship with the university. Representatives from UW-Madison schools and colleges and other campus partners will highlight the innovative ways they are working with business and industry.

            There will be opportunities to learn what’s new from world class researchers and collaborators Rock Mackie, Hector DeLuca and Richard Davidson, and meet them after their presentations. Businesses with current and ongoing relationships with UW-Madison will be represented during the Corporate Partnership Showcase Panel about why their partnerships with UW-Madison are a critical part of their business strategy.

            Tom Gentile, president and CEO of GE Healthcare Systems, will headline the keynote session. He will share his perspective on collaboration and partnerships with UW-Madison and how working with the UW is shaping the future of health care and expanding the Wisconsin Idea.

            Participants will have the chance to get their photos taken with Bucky Badger at the end-of-day reception, where one registered attendee will win a pair of UW football tickets from UW Athletics.

            The Corporate Open House is cosponsored by the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations and the University of Wisconsin Foundation, Corporate and Foundation Relations.


          • JohnTorinus

            This is good stuff. Glad to see the out-reach. FYI, though, UW Madison ranks quite low on business supported researcg.

          • Point

            I have been thinking about this whole argument and I find it interesting how “one-sided” the conversation has become is as if UW-Madison is all there is. As a former UW-Milwaukee faculty member and former UW-Stevens Point administrator (now retired), I know first hand that the UW-System and its various campuses are much more rich and varied and business-oriented than some would claim. We have been stretching those taxpayer dollars for years and have been integral to the local industry and business climate in our local communities. So lets leave at the door the idea that there is only one campus in Wisconsin.

            On the issue of the UW-System President: You are correct in that the president’s job has changed considerably as has each of the Chancellors positions. They are there to raise money and influence people. All of the “academic” stuff is handled by a Provost/Vice Chancellor. That position is where the day-to-day campus functions are covered, not at the Chancellor level. So lets agree that Chancellors are the integral link and a fantastic partner for our local business communities.

          • JohnTorinus

            Totally agree. The entrepreneurial ethos needs to be spread across the whole system. WARF could help a lot more than it does.