Beyond happy talk on economic collaboration

There is a sad but true piece of reality that needs to be injected to the happy talk on the subject of collaboration in Wisconsin for economic development.

Even thought the standard rhetoric extols the virtue of collaboration on a statewide basis, and even though Rebecca Blank, chancellor of UW-Madison, has decried the rivalry between campuses, the amount of actual collaboration between campuses is barely visible.

Collaboration is happening, but it’s mainly happening on a regional level.

We in Wisconsin love our flagship campus in Dane County, and we are immensely proud to be home to one of the world’s great universities.

But the level of hubris and insularity is so high in Madison that the rest of the state can expect little help for its economic and social challenges.

Its graduates do spread across the state, a great gift because they provide leadership in many sectors. But institutional contributions are another matter. There are a few instances of collaboration, but generally it’s more talk than walk.

UW-Madison has become an active partner in the Midwest Energy Research Consortium (MERC), which is hubbed around UW-Milwaukee, Marquette and MSOE. It also contributed some RFID technology toward a tracking and data management project launched by the BloodCenter of Wisconsin for its multi-state blood bank. There is some interaction between the UW-Madison limnology center and the new College of Freshwater Science at UWM.

But, by and large, state money flows one way, to Madison, not from. For example, there is $7 billion in foundation money associated with UW-Madison, and their proceeds generally stay in Dane County. Those dollars do not flow out.

That reality is unlikely to change, given the flagship campus’ self-absorption.

Fortunately, another reality has emerged. In concert with the strategic vision of the leaders of Milwaukee 7’s business, university, health care and non-profit worlds, collaboration is flourishing in Southeastern Wisconsin.

The co-location at UWM’s new Innovation Campus, adjacent to the Medical College of Wisconsin, brings together researchers from industry and several universities. It will be a powerful combination that will turn out innovations that can be sold in the marketplace. Those innovations will create jobs and future prosperity for people in the region and beyond.

The same kind of dynamic is happening around UWM’s College of Freshwater Sciences and the associated Global Water Center.

The region hosts about $300 million in research and development, which is a respectable fraction of the $1 billion plus at UW-Madison. The end products of that activity are patents, licenses, startup enterprises and, finally, high pay jobs.

The collaboration could become even more productive, operating on three levels.

First, the UW System could reorganize itself along regional lines to better align within the economic clusters that largely fall within regional lines. That would mean UWM, UW-Whitewater, UW-Parkside, UW-Waukesha and UW-Washington County operate under one chancellor. The campuses could specialize in what the various economic clusters need.

That combination would constitute a university of more than 40,000 students, the equivalent in size of UW-Madison.

Michael LovellSecond, more economic power could be aggregated with a genuine collaboration of those public campuses with the eight private universities in the seven counties. Mike Lovell, ex-chancellor of UWM and now president of Marquette, could be a lynch pin for that cooperation. He’s good at it. Interim UWM Chancellor Mark Mone is in total sync with Lovell on that score.

Mark-MoneAt the third level, unlike Madison, the Milwaukee region has a reservoir of business horsepower. Major corporations like GE Healthcare, Rockwell, JCI, Badger Meter, AO Smith, Veolia and ABB have already bought into the collaborative model. They are co-locating with the region’s academic researchers.

One good outcome from the three layers of collaboration would be the establishment of more research institutes in the region, along the lines of the research institute in blood technologies at the BloodCenter.

This is not an anti-Madison screed. It is just a recognition that the M7 Region and other regions in the state can and need to do their own heavy lifting. They need to see their own power and act accordingly.

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