Reverse the Wisconsin brain drain

Ray Cross, UW System President

Ray Cross, UW System President

The University of Wisconsin System is in some stage of denial about the magnitude of the brain drain of college graduates from the state.

System is pushing for more dollars for a talent creation initiative in the 2015-2017 state budget, a laudable goal. Arguably, though, plugging the drain should be an even higher priority.

In a recent analysis from within UW ranks, Prof. Morris Davis of the James Graaskamp Center for Real Estate at UW – Madison reported that Wisconsin lost more than 14,000 degreed graduates each year in the five years from 2008 to 2012. Those 70,000 emigrants are big loss any way you cut it.

Of those, 9000 per year are recent graduates ages 21 to 25. That really hurts.

Stack that against roughly 36,000 degrees granted annually from the UW System’s 13 university campuses each year, and you get the magnitude of the “drain.” We have 25% leakage on a net basis. Davis called it “a massive brain drain.”

Moral of the story: UW System needs to put at least as much emphasis on the “demand” side of the state’s economy, the job creation side, as on the “supply” side, the production of graduates. Those young emigrants are leaving for careers, not the weather.

University leaders know this. The role of the university as a central player in an innovation economy was called out loud and clear in the four economic summits led by then-UW president Katherine Lyall from 2000 to 2003.

The issue today is one of emphasis. The flow of graduates must be maintained, but UW must also embrace alliances with the state’s industries that can expand and add jobs, and it must embrace the concept of a startup economy. UW President Ray Cross did include some monies for economic development grants in his budget request. But that part wasn’t front and center.

As Israel and Silicon Valley have proved, it’s entrepreneurs linked to university scientists and engineers who lead a nation or region to prosperity.

UW – Madison has historically done a great job with patents and licenses, but has been lackluster at best in turning that intellectual property into new ventures that bring new jobs. With the exception of agri-business, it has largely limited its impact on the demand side to Dane County. There are a few signs of greater attention to its responsibilities to the rest of the citizens of the state, such as the new 4490 Ventures Fund that has a statewide mission, but, overall, its statewide impact has been minimal to date.

When Mike Lovell was chancellor of UW – Milwaukee, he totally got the need to integrate UWM with industry and startups. In a few short years there, he co-located technologists in centers for fresh water science and energy innovation. He supported advanced manufacturing. He connected with GE Healthcare and the imaging world. He established a new innovation campus that connects UWM’s engineers with the researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He pushed student entrepreneurship across the campus. He funded the new UWM Research Foundation that is rapidly bringing the campus up to speed as a major R&D and technology transfer player.

Closer ties between town and gown, industry and academe, have the added benefit of creating more chances for students to land internships, research posts and eventually jobs with the connected companies.

In his new roles as president of Marquette University, Lovell is already signaling that he will move MU from a teaching school to a larger role as a mover and shaker in the economy. Lovell is the right leader to bring together the public universities in the region and the private colleges, which account for more than half of the region’s graduates.

Mark Mone, interim UWM chancellor, is following the strategic game plan laid out by Lovell and the two chancellors before him and therefore should probably get the nod as permanent chancellor. It would be tragic to lose the momentum that UWM has generated over the last decade. A new chancellor from the outside might have different ideas.

The M7 region might as well get used to the reality that it is not going to get much help on the demand side from the flagship of the UW System, UW – Madison. It needs UWM to be a second flagship university, much as Michigan State operates in relation to the University of Michigan.

That role could be made much more pronounced if the five UW campuses in the M7 region (UWM, UW – Whitewater, UW – Parkside, UW – Washington County and UW – Waukesha) were tied into a single powerhouse institution. Each campus could each carve out strategic roles in the larger combination. UW – Whitewater, for example, could lead in the accounting disciplines, where it has undisputed expertise and national stature.

Such a merger, in alliance with MU and the seven other private colleges in the region, could be a magnet for even more R&D dollars from the federal government and industry.

Together, they might even help with drawing a federal institute or two to the Milwaukee area. Such R&D centers are major economic engines, and we only have only one small one in the whole state.

The end game for the state and region is expansions of technology intensive companies and the launch of lots of high growth startups. That ‘s where Wisconsin can generate the hot new jobs that could reverse the debilitating brain drain.

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