Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, is working on a compromise proposal that could keep UW-Madison within the University of Wisconsin System -- but would grant Wisconsin's flagship institution its own board within the Board of Regents.
The details of how such a body might be set up and operate, however, remain in the development stage.
"We're still hammering out the details of what this might look like, how we would accomplish it," says Sara Buschman, a legislative aide to Strachota.
Buschman says all state campuses need additional flexibility from state oversight to deal with Gov. Scott Walker's 2011-13 biennial budget proposal, which cuts $250 million in state aid to the UW System -- with half of that to be absorbed by UW-Madison.
"Our bottom line is the governor has given every other entity that's taking cuts some tools to manage those cuts, and we need to come up with something for higher ed to manage those cuts as well," she says.
Buschman stresses that this idea of giving UW-Madison its own board within the Board of Regents is being developed by Strachota, and was not pitched by UW System or UW-Madison officials. Strachota and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, are the members of the Joint Finance Committee tasked with taking the lead on higher education issues.
When university heads met with the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee in late March, lawmakers implored them to stop fighting and work out a compromise on the governor's budget proposal to break UW-Madison away from the UW System. But that hasn't happened.
UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin remains committed to gaining some long-sought freedoms from state oversight by securing http://www.secfac.wisc.edu/senate/2011/0404/2263.pdf">public authority status for Wisconsin's flagship institution, as outlined in Walker's budget. Leadership across the rest of the system is backing the http://www.wisconsin.edu/wip/">Wisconsin Idea Partnership. This alternative proposal would grant all campuses these much-needed freedoms from state red tape while also keeping UW-Madison under the UW System umbrella.
"UW-Madison is very unique and should be given some autonomy to manage itself a little bit more," says Buschman. "Some other Big Ten universities have their own boards to varying degrees. But we still would like oversight by the Board of Regents. I think that's where the governor's plan went off the rails."
Harry Peterson, who worked in the chancellor's office at UW-Madison from 1978 to 1990, spending his last few years as then-Chancellor Donna Shalala's chief of staff, says that if a compromise were to be struck, and UW-Madison had a dedicated board within the Board of Regents, the key question would be whether this body is advisory in nature or has real power.
"Having advisory boards and committees is a long and good tradition," says Peterson, who from 1993 to 1996 worked as a deputy chancellor in Minnesota overseeing the eventual merger of the Minnesota State Colleges and University System. "But if this board within a board would have real power, that would create problems. Arrangements like this are in place in Maine and Utah, and there are serious accountability problems and confusion about who is really in charge. So a separate board, if it has authority, would set up a permanent conflict between UW-Madison and the UW System."
Those within the UW System and UW-Madison aren't overly excited about getting pulled into a debate about a new proposal so late in the budget game.
"The more nuanced discussion about governance structures, we think, should be put off until after the budget," says UW System spokesman David Giroux. "This other idea is bubbling up and it has not had any kind of public vetting, and right now we believe the best thing to do is deal with the budget and the flexibilities that go with the budget, and deal with governance structures later."
"I've heard lots of legislators talk about lots of alternatives, but nothing that's been put out there for anyone to react to," says Don Nelson, UW-Madison's director of state relations. "So we're committed to what's in the governor's budget."
But all indications are that the plan to grant UW-Madison public authority status will be pulled out of the budget by the Joint Finance Committee, which is expected to tackle this issue later in May.
"We've been mainly focused on the flexibilities and giving Madison and the other campuses the ability to operate more efficiently," says Scott Nelson, who is Harsdorf's chief of staff. "We have not been supportive of the split. There are a lot of different ideas being floated around. We're just not sure that we can make all this happen in the compressed time frame that we're working with."