Strategic ray of light on UW reform

There hasn’t been a grand strategic look at the University of Wisconsin since the Ice Age, actually since 1971, more than 50 years ago. So it is welcome news that the legislature has created the Legislative Council Study Committee on the Future of the University of Wisconsin System.

I happen to know that 1971 date because my Aunt Mary Minahan Walter served in that strategic effort. It had a big result: the merging of the state colleges with the University of Wisconsin.

It just came out that the Legislative Council will meet once a month over the next six months and will be headed by Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R- Pleasant Prairie and Sen. Cory Tomczyk, R- Schofield, vice-chairman. Both are newcomers to the state legislature. Nedweski is up for reelection for her second term in November. Tomczyk is in his first four-year term.

That said, both have some education chops; they served on their local school boards. Their relative lack of seniority and experience at the state level raises the possibility that the work of this study committee is not the highest of priorities for Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Devon LeMahieu. Further, the use of the word “Study” implies a certain lack of heavyweight intention.

One of the virtues of legislative councils is that their work is usually captured not in a report that gathers dust on a shelf somewhere, but in an actual bill put before the legislature.

Another virtue is that legislative councils are normally staffed by experts from the Legislative Reference Bureau. The LRB has the capacity to do some real digging in to the facts and realities of the 26-campus system.

It would be arrogant and presumptuous to suggest major agenda items for the council’s consideration, but I’m going to do it anyway. Here are some of the most pressing issues facing the legislature, Gov. Tony Evers and the citizens of the state:

  • Declining enrollments at every campus except for UW-Madison, which is swamped with applications. The causes are 1. declining numbers of high school graduates every year; 2. a hot labor market that pulls young people directly into the workplace instead of going to college; 3. and high school students who are also college students by taking Advanced Placement courses and dual credit classes while in high school.
  • Like health care costs, the price of a college education is going through the roof. Total costs, including tuition, room and board, fees, and books run about $18,000 to $25,000 across the 13 campuses. At private colleges, the costs are two to four times higher. Scholarships and grants help, but student debt has become unsustainable.
  • Six of the 13 UW colleges that have been satellites of the four-year colleges have been marked for closure, and it’s just a matter of time until UW President Jay Rothman shutters the other seven.
  • Six of the 16 Wisconsin technical colleges already perform as community colleges with a technical track for many occupations and a baccalaureate track for professional careers. Madison College is the biggest example. A merger of the remaining seven UW colleges with technical colleges would save their communities from the loss of a local UW baccalaureate track.
  • UW-Madison has sunk below 50% for enrollment of in-state students. Keeping the best and brightest in the state would be more likely if Madison followed other states and raised its in-state enrollment to 75%. Losing out-of-state tuition would cost a lot of money, but it could help to reverse the brain drain of about 14,000 baccalaureate graduates from Wisconsin per year.
  • If the state really wants to keep its best young talent, it could offer free tuition at a UW campus to every high school graduate with a 3.0 average or better. It also would cost a lot of money, but what better way to spend the state’s estimated $4.2 billion surplus! Such a visionary step would keep parents and grandparents, also taxpayers and voters happy. Students educated here mostly stay here, like 80% or better.
  • There are plenty UWS assets across the state that are not core to its mission and could be sold for big bucks. Its Quartz HMO could be sold for as much as $800 million. Why is UW in the health insurance business? It could even spin off UW Health, the biggest health care corporation in the state, for some billions of dollars. UW should keep its medical school, but could follow other states in spinning out the health care system. The cash raised could more than pay for other reforms.
  • Along that line, why did we invest more than $250 million outside the state’s borders for the hospital system in Rockford, Illinois? Again, not core to the UW mission.
  • Many leaders in the state treasure UW-Madison as a global university unto its own. It does breakthrough R&D at more than $1.5 billion per year. As a world-class institution, it needs to be governed separately from the rest of the system. It needs its own board of regents.
  • The rest of the system could be organized under the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a flagship centered in the state’s biggest business center.
  • Or the 12 campuses could be regionalized into four regions, each with its own flagship and board of regents.
  • The state’s 11 comprehensive four-year colleges could specialize in strategic disciplines without having to offer a total range of majors. Examples already in place are natural resources and paper-making at UW-Stevens Point, technical education and hospitality at UW-Stout and shipbuilding at UW-Green Bay.

I know, I know, these are monster big concepts. But they have been sifted and winnowed across the state for the last several decades.

Major reform is screamingly necessary in the face of fundamental demographic shifts and fundamental revolutions taking place in how in business and education work.

Not so incidentally, Microsoft’s decision to make Wisconsin a major base of operations for the deployment of artificial intelligence gives Wisconsin a leg up on implementing strategies for a rapidly changing population and economy.

If this legislative council were purposefully designed to hit short, it could adopt at least some of these measures.

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