Post crisis, UW 2050 Needs Strategist at Helm

Under the heading of the famous line, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” University of Wisconsin Regents may want to use the current calamity facing the university system to re-think many of the ways it does business.

Like our glacier changed the topography of Wisconsin forever, the meltdown on the 26 UW campuses is likely to change the face and substance of our great university forever. Rolling furloughs, which are just starting, are the first indicators of the level of chaos on the campuses.

There’s an outside chance that the campuses could return to “normal” if the coronavirus can be brought under control in a year or two. But that’s unlikely.
Further, the system faced enormous challenges even before the virus outbreak that reared its deadly nature in February. Those included:

• Declining enrollments on every campus except Madison, which has the dual luxury of attracting many outside students and of digging deeper into the shrinking pool of Wisconsin high school graduates.
• Unsustainably low enrollments at several campuses.
• Higher costs to attend university and the resulting heavier student debt loads.
• Competition from less expensive online and for-profit education entities.
• Before the one-month-old economic collapse, a long-running pattern of more jobs than workers, leading some young people to skip college and go straight into the work force. That long-range trend is likely to come back as the economy comes back.
• Declining government research dollars.
• The reality that the Wisconsin Idea, under which our flagship university is entwined with the prosperity of the whole state, isn’t working any more. Madison is concerned about Madison. Major concepts like the I-94 corridor as an economic engine failed to gain traction.
• Lower support levels from the state’s political leaders.

For several decades, governors, regents and legislative leaders resisted the screaming need for a high-level commission to examine the altered education dynamics and to craft a strategy for 2050. That visioning and restructuring, or the absence of such, will have a lot to do with what a broader state strategy looks like three decades out.

The timing is prime for such an analysis. It’s overdue. The last such strategic analysis was in 1971.

The regents are about to name a new UW System president. They better come up with a leader who is more than an education bureaucrat. Maintenance of the status quo won’t cut it for a system that has enormous challenges. We need a bold leader, a strategist willing to make necessary changes and tough choices in a change-resistant institution.

There is a pent-up list of concepts for shaping the 26 campuses into a more effective institution, starting with the obvious strategy of keeping in place many world-class resources. Here are some that blue ribbon commission would take a hard look at:

• Combining on-line and on-campus learning in more cost effective ways.
• Aligning the campuses into regional entities. It has already happened in a middling way with the recent absorption of the former UW colleges into the six-year campuses. Each region would have its own chancellor, including Madison.
• Spin out UW Health from UW-Madison to free up a couple of billion dollars to fund system reorganization. It’s a very profitable multi-state organization that operates in three other states. Why?
• Move system headquarters to Milwaukee to pull together Wisconsin’s business and educational leaders. That’s the only way an I-94 intellectual property corridor is ever going to happen.
• Form a state higher education council to oversee the interaction between UW, the state’s technical college system and the state’s 20 private colleges.
• Emphasize entrepreneurship on each campus. Entrepreneurs re-invent economies, which Wisconsin will need in the rebound from our deepening recession. Some campuses are well down this path.
• Sharpening the missions of each campus. They need to specialize, as some have already done to a degree.
• Continue to raise UW—Milwaukee to world class, flagship status.
• Lead the way on developing a national platform for students to pay for college. Like the GI bill, make education “free” all the way through doctorates in return for a number of years of national service. (It worked for me through an NROTC scholarship.) It could be military service, teaching and medicine in under-served areas or many other government or non-profit disciplines.

This a partial list of initiatives that a cross-section of our best strategic thinkers need to consider.

The pandemic is going to re-shape our beloved university in major ways, like it or not. Should we not be proactive in the re-shaping with intention, innovative thinking and smarts as opposed to reacting of necessity under economic duress?

Let’s come out of this ugly crisis in a better place.

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