Walker on right track with rewrite of Wisconsin Idea

UW-logo-bigIn fairness to Gov. Scott Walker and his staff, who were roasted for daring to tamper with “The Wisconsin Idea,” there is solid precedent and reason to update the mission of the University of Wisconsin System.

The governor’s critics, who are legion in a fiercely polarized state, leapt into the fray to accuse him of wanting to turn the university into a trade school.

The wording in his budget for a new version of “The Idea” was to position the UW “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Gov. Walker briefly defended the rewrite but quickly dissembled and backed off. Yet he could have made a compelling case for a 21st Century sharpening of the university’s wordy, turgid, meandering purpose and mission.

Back in 1997, Gov. Tommy Thompson asked then UW President Kathryn Lyall to head a Blue Ribbon Commission on 21st Century Jobs, and it did just that.

The Commission, of which I was a member, was a non-partisan group of 30 leaders working under the direction of Lyall, a level headed executive and brilliant labor economist. Its unanimous “New Wisconsin Idea” read: “Innovative learning opportunities should be available to all Wisconsin citizens in a seamless manner throughout their lives, wherever they may be.”

Here are a couple of paragraphs that explain the commission’s thinking:

“In today’s world, the actual boundaries of life and work for Wisconsin citizens reach far beyond our state’s borders. Many Wisconsin citizens will work outside the state for part of their careers or will work in Wisconsin for firms headquartered outside the state or the U. S., and Wisconsin firms will hire the skills they need in a competitive national labor market. Students from all parts of the earth are Wisconsin students, and Wisconsin students tap knowledge and experiences via travel and telecommunications from all parts of the world. Wisconsin alumni cover the globe.”

Of note, the Lyall commission extended The Wisconsin Idea to the excellent Wisconsin Technical College system and to its 20 private colleges and universities.

There was no uproar back then on the proposed revisions. So why the outrage this time around? The umbrage, mainly coming from from university leaders and Democrats, stemmed from these underlying factors:

• Unlike the open deliberations of the Lyall Commission, the rewrite of the UW purpose and mission came as a surprise, another in an unfortunate list of major policy surprises injected into the Walker budget by his cloistered staff.

• Walker’s proposed cut of $300 million over the next two years came as university leaders were stumping the state for a $90 million increase. The reversal of their budget ambitions caused shock and awe.

• The governance outlook for UW’s 26 campuses was thrown into the air with the budget proposal to create an “authority” on top of the system – a structure whose powers remain largely undefined.

• The Walker Administration wants to change the state debate from job creation, where it doesn’t look so hot, to filling job openings through workforce training.

• Walker’s run for the presidency has fired up his opponents to use every lever they can find to blunt his chances.

There is an interesting juxtaposition between the condition of the Wisconsin economy back in 1997 and now. Coming off an extended period of job growth in the 1990s, Lyall observed in a cover letter to the 21st Century Jobs report: “We have moved from being a ‘job shortage’ to a ‘labor shortage’ state.”

The Wisconsin unemployment rate had dropped to 3.5% in 1996, near its all time low. It had peaked at 10.7% in 1982.

Similarly today, six years of economic growth have produced a drop in the jobless rate to 4.8%, down from a high of 8.9% in the Great Recession in 2008.

As back then, the positive news should not lead to complacency on either job creation or workforce development. We still need both.

Many of the jobs added over the last six years were of the low-pay variety in retail and health care. Ergo, Wisconsin remains in the bottom third of the states for wage levels. And, critically, we are still losing more than 10,000 college graduates per year. They leave to find high-pay careers in other states and countries.

So, the debate does need to change – from job quantity to job quality.

That’s where a clear-eyed rewrite of The Wisconsin Idea could help. When and if the UW Authority is created, it should start by re-examining the UW mission.

Lyall also broke new ground by leading for Economic Summits from 2000 to 2003 during which she recognized that the UW System had a dual role – its traditional role of turning our graduates who could lead the state (the supply side) and an enlarged role as the engine of job creation through university innovation (the demand side). That latter role has not been clearly codified in the UW mission.

Adding strategic elements to meet today’s global economy does not preclude the retention of the venerable, high-minded parts of the traditional understanding of The Wisconsin Idea, such as:

• Sifting and winnowing in search of the truth.

• Expanding the concept that the borders of the campus are borders of the state to include service to Wisconsinites across the globe.

• The concept of public service and facilitation of effective government.

But, the Authority, or another Blue Ribbon Commission, could also amend The Idea to include:

• Leadership in the innovative economy via research and development.

• Preparation of citizens for a global and digital economy.

• The education students in both liberal arts and cutting edge technologies, the soft and hard skills.

• Promotion of entrepreneurship and startups, the source of high-pay jobs of the future.

• Reorganization of the system to serve the varying regions of the state.

If the new authority could combine the old and new elements and then organize the system to execute the sharpened mission, the gaffe in the governor’s budget process and the subsequent uproar could open the door to a more prosperous outcome for Wisconsin citizens.

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