Extend flexibility to all UW campuses

Biddy MartinThe financial stress on the flagship research universities in the Midwest were encapsulated in the two-hour visit to the Riverside Brewery in West Bend, Wisconsin this month by Biddy Martin, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Chancellor Martin is facing a cut in state funding of $125 million over the next two years, which constitutes a major dose of stress.  She and Gov. Scott Walker cut a deal to allow her to absorb the 13% budget reduction by giving UW-Madison the status of a “public authority.”  The governor of Ohio is looking at a similar template, and the University of Michigan already enjoys “charter” status.

The “authority” designation is rather undefined, but it would give the chancellor more leeway with tuition, enrollment policy, construction projects, staff pay policies, benefits and sourcing.

That change entails splitting off UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System.  Martin is running for daylight to achieve autonomy in the midst of the state’s deep financial crisis.  The mantra of the day is never waste a crisis.

Martin made her pitch for support to about 20 Madison alums at the micro brewery, asking them to contact several pivotal legislators on behalf of cutting Madison loose.  Her plea to the Badgers elicited a generally positive response.

But questions remain about the logic of the divorce from the rest of the System:

  • If more flexibility and autonomy is good for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the flagship of the state’s 26-campus system, then why isn’t it good for the other campuses, as well?
  • Further, if flexibility and autonomy makes overall sense for all 26 of the colleges and universities, where is the compelling reason to carve out the Madison campus?

In her pitch, Martin admitted that flexibility would be good for all the campuses.  But her argument, which echoed that of the two previous Madison chancellors, was Madison-centric.

“Every region in the world is trying to create an innovative research university.  We cannot afford to lose the one we have.”

There is no question that UW-Madison is a treasure because of its R&D prowess and the innovation it brings to the world.  There is no doubt it has the potential to be an economic engine for the entire state.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to keep our flagship university as part of the system and offer equal freedom from the constraints on management at each campus.

The university’s deans and chancellors chafe at three sets of constraints:  micromanagement by the Legislature of enrollment, tuition and budget policies; the inflexible constraints of the state’s personnel system that apply equally to high demand university professors and less mobile government bureaucrats; and the bureaucracy imposed by the university system hierarchy itself.  Campuses need relief  from all of those impediments if the Legislature and Governor are going to continue a long-standing pattern of ever deeper cuts.

The rationale for keeping the UW as an integrated system are many:

  • There has been a disconnect between the prosperity in Dane County, largely propelled by UW-Madison, and the prosperity of the rest of the state.  Simply put, UW — Madison does not do enough to extend its horsepower to the rest of the state in terms of job creation.  It’s proven beyond debate that most new jobs come from young start-up companies.  Madison has been AWOL on that front outside of Dane County.
  • There is synergy among the campuses on academic matters, and that undoubtedly would wither if Madison were detached.  Examples are research of the Great Lakes as a system by professors at the campuses in Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay.  Another example is the new applied energy consortium in which the UW-Madison Engineering School is collaborating with engineering schools in the Milwaukee area.
  • If Madison had its own board of regents, there inevitably would be fierce competition between the two regent boards for state resources.  That occurs now in Minnesota, where two systems fight for state dollars.
  • While the UW System is a bureaucracy of its own, that system is in place and does rationalize resources among the campuses. For instance, how many journalism schools do we need in the state? The system bureaucracy  could be greatly reduced in size if the 26 campuses were given more autonomy.
  • The prestige of UW-Madison spreads to the other 26 campuses when it comes to recruiting professors, enrolling students, and winning research grants.

The whole state was caught by surprise when the Walker Administration proposed the separate authority for the Madison campus.  But the other campuses are also taking a cut of $125 million in the 2011-2013 biennial budget, an 11% reduction in their budgets.  There isn’t that much difference, so why the different treatment of UW-Milwaukee, UW-Oshkosh, UW –Washington County and all the other campuses across the state?

The 13 chancellors of the other universities in the system have come out against the divorce.  So has the university Board of Regents.

Finally, Martin can solve her fiscal issues short without detachment.  Her health costs for 17,000 employees exceed $350 million, and they could easily be reduced by 25% by deploying proven reforms from the private sector.

She could look at consolidating UW-Extension, a college whose mission has been lost over time.

The university system is among the state’s greatest assets.  It could be more dynamic and powerful in restoring the state’s lost prosperity if all its deans and chancellors, not just Martin, could respond more nimbly to a changing global world and marketplace.

This entry was posted in Business and Government. Bookmark the permalink.