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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