Give UW-Madison its Freedom

A number of years ago, I wrote a column entitled “Tale of Two Universities.” It contended that the University of Wisconsin – Madison operated in a completely different sphere than the other campuses in the University of Wisconsin System (UWS).

That was crystal clear to me Saturday while I cheered on the Badgers at Randall Field. It was a glorious day, not just because the Badgers won against a lesser opponent, but also for all the energy exuded on that sunny campus. Our flagship campus operates in an oasis of success.

At the same time, the UW campuses across the state are struggling to make ends meet in the face of declining enrollments and what might be considered hostility from the Republican-controlled legislature.

Never before has the state enjoyed budget surpluses of the magnitude that we enjoy in 2023. The surplus was more than $7 billion going into the 2023-25 biennium, and it stands at more than $4 billion today after Gov. Evers and the legislature grudgingly settled on a small tax cut for Wisconsin taxpayers. If ever the state were going to be generous toward higher education, this was the biennium to do it.

Instead, gridlock between the Democratic governor and the GOP leaders in the legislature resulted in a cut of about $32 million to UWS. The 12 out-of-state chancellors are cutting in numerous ways to balance their budgets for the 2024-2025 school year. In contrast, UW-Madison has money rolling in from multiples sources:

  •  About half its student body of a record 50,000 students comes from out-of-state and pays much higher tuitions than Wisconsin residents lucky enough to get into Madison. ($12,200 vs. $25,500)
  • The University of Wisconsin Foundation now has assets of more than $5 billion. Typically, a foundation pays out about 5% of its assets to its beneficiaries annually. It sent $272 million last year to UW-Madison.
  • Our flagship campus wins about half of the general tax dollars for UWS each year. The other 12 four-year universities share the remainder of about $1 billion in state dollars.
  • UW–Madison is an R&D powerhouse at about $ 1.2 billion last year. Those funds from the outside cover not only direct R&D activities, but also buckets of overheads.
  • UW Health has recorded profits ranging from $200 to $500 million. Historically, it sends $60 million to UW-Madison per year.
  • Though way off previous highs, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) has assets of more than $3 billion and has been sending more than $25 million to UW-Madison each year.
  • Construction cranes can be seen all over the Madison campus, but are relatively rare sightings elsewhere.

The headlines about the other campuses in the state are all about layoffs, staff reductions, program cutbacks and declining enrollments. The closing of the UW-Richland Center campus was front page news earlier this year, and the reduction of 200 staff people at UW-Oshkosh also made front page. The politics surrounding the university are complicated. But, some of them are pretty obvious.

Dane County votes 80% Democratic, which explains why the GOP-led legislature gives Madison a hard time. Milwaukee County, the home of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, also votes heavily Democratic – 70% to 75%. That partly helps explain why UW-Milwaukee does so poorly when state tax dollars are doled out by the legislature.  Some of UWM’s loss of state support can be explained by its sharp drop in enrollment over the last 15 years.

UWM did win a new chemistry building two biennia ago at $118 million, but it has won little since from general revenues. The addition of a new engineering building on the Madison campus is looking good, and it should. The state needs many more engineers if it is going to operate successfully in a high- tech world.

That ambitious project has been estimated at $350 million. Much of the funding has already been raised from donations and other UW-Madison sources. A full-court press will be needed to finish off the funding.

UW-Milwaukee also needs an expansion of its engineering facilities. That campus is growing student numbers in the STEM and health care disciplines, and in disciplines like graphic arts and video. It could run for daylight in those fields, but is constrained by funding stresses.

Driving back to West Bend after the game, it dawned on me that a strategic realignment of UWS would benefit all of UW. As others have proposed, spin out UW-Madison into a separate authority to do its elite mission. Then decentralize the other 24 campuses into regional institutions with their own governing boards.

They would be the stewards of the Wisconsin Idea — that the boundaries of the University of Wisconsin are the boundaries of the state. Except for its export of fabulous graduates, UW-Madison shares not that philosophy. Torinus recently co-chaired a task force charged with recommendations on to how save the two-year campus in Washington county.

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