New UW President Must Be Change Agent

The search committee for a new University of Wisconsin System (UWS) president has surfaced two candidates who look to have the chops necessary for leading the university through some turbulent times in the next five to ten years.

Jay Rothman, who is stepping down from the leadership of the largest law firm in Wisconsin, and James Schmidt, the chancellor of UW-Eau Claire, have track records that lend themselves to reinvigorating the Wisconsin Idea in the 26-campus statewide institutions.

There has not been a high level strategic analysis of the sprawling UW System since 1971, when UW was merged with the Wisconsin state college system. Most large organizations do a strategic update every three to five years. We are long overdue for a new leader who will launch a strategic overhaul.

Rothman’s expertise has been strategy, mergers and acquisitions for large corporations. His firm, Foley and Lardner, has 500 attorneys who work in a collegial manner, much like a university of talented professors and administrators operate.

Schmidt has been a change agent at UW-Eau Claire where enrollment has grown over his eight-year tenure – in contrast to a general decline across most of the campuses in the system.

He has orchestrated collaborations with big players in the private sector and the establishment of the Confluence, an arts and cultural venue at the convergence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers. Those two sets of skills will both be needed as the new president faces these challenges:

  • Declining Enrollment — UWS has lost 15,000 students across the system over a decade and the projected loss is another 15,000 over the next decade.
  • Two-year Campuses Hurting – Some of the two-year campuses have lost critical mass. The 2017 merger of the two-year centers into seven of the four-year universities has not worked well. Enrollments have plunged at once popular centers like Waukesha and West Bend.
  • Virus Controls — A worsening two-year old coronavirus-19 epidemic makes in-person teaching more dangerous.
  • An Adversarial Relationship — The UW leadership and the legislature have been at odds. Even though the state treasury has seen unprecedented surpluses, tax support for UW campuses have been grudgingly limited.
  • Uneven Support — The system’s flagship campus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison has never missed a beat in terms of its growth and multiple sources of revenue. Madison can always dip lower into the state’s pool of high school graduates; enrollment is not an issue. The other campuses have been squeezed by a long tuition freeze, recently ended, and enrollment declines. Unlike Madison, they have fewer places to go for revenues.
  • Second Flagship — The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the other campus granting doctorates, has not received the state support necessary to make it the equivalent of Michigan State, Arizona State or Iowa State.
  • Underfunded Strategic Initiatives: There is no greater challenge to the state and the university system than the protection of the invaluable water resources in Wisconsin, especially the Great Lakes. The new Fresh Water Collaborative received paltry funding in the last budget. A new research vessel at the UW-Milwaukee has not been fully funded. A public health care strategy has been stunted across the system, despite growing enrollments in those disciplines, worsening public health statistics and the availability of a huge Blue Cross endowment. Both Madison and Milwaukee engineering expansions were shot down by the legislature.
  • Two-Year Overlap — There has been an increasing push for combining some of the two-year technical college campuses with the two-year UW campuses. The overlap between the two systems is complicated, but cries out for better collaboration.
  • Whither Extension? — The University of Wisconsin Extension, which was merged into the Madison campus, has gone invisible. Its impact as the outreach arm for the Wisconsin Idea is unknown as the job base of the state has morphed away from a reliance on agriculture.
  • Virtual Learning — UW’s strategy for online education has been fragmented — even as that mode of learning continues to take hold.
  • R&D opportunities — Federal research and development at Madison has grown substantially, but its relationship with industry for research has lagged its peers — ranking only 54th nationally. University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee has created several research centers in collaboration with industry leaders, but its overall R&D resources has not grown. It kept its R1 status as a top research university, but total R&D spending has plateaued, partly due to its loss in professor positions.
  • More Startups — The biggest lever for reinventing the Wisconsin economy is entrepreneurship. That has been a big plus on UW campuses, but many more startups can be launched.
  • Consolidated Management, Transparent Financials — The UW is a conglomerate enterprise, but it lacks a consolidated financial statement and management. There is little UW System oversight of the $3 billion UW Health, or the $4 billion WARF, or the $4 billion affiliated foundations.

So, which of the two candidates would be better able to address the array of challenges that must be resolved for UW-Wisconsin to stay in the upper ranks of universities around the world?

Both candidates should have a more statewide vison than previous presidents who generally put Madison first and the rest of the system in a distant secondary position.

Neither needs to be Superman. A blue ribbon strategic commission could provide insight and support for either man to be a needed change agent.

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