John Wiley still gets worked up when talking about the time he “literally spent weeks” getting permission from the state to buy Clorox bleach.

The former UW-Madison chancellor was dean of the university’s Graduate School at the time, and biologists were complaining that they weren’t getting Clorox bleach anymore to sterilize their glassware. The state had recently put out a bid for bleach, and was now supplying the university with a cheaper generic brand scientists said wasn’t doing the trick. Wiley says UW researchers had to prove with experiments and data that there really was a difference between the two bleaches in order to get permission to purchase the slightly more expensive brand.

“What a thing to waste your time on,” says Wiley, now the interim director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery who served as graduate dean from 1990-93 and chancellor from 2001-08.

State regulations can also gum up big projects, including new construction on campus, he adds. “We take about twice as long as we should take and spend about twice as much as we should.”

UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin hopes to minimize such red tape in the future with a plan to secure greater autonomy for the university from the state. Her proposal, which she’s calling the New Badger Partnership, argues that UW-Madison could run much more efficiently and effectively if it had more freedom to purchase its own goods, construct its own buildings, hire and pay workers outside of the state process, set its own tuition rates, and use those funds as it sees fit. Leadership within the UW System is asking for similar leeway.

“Like it or not, higher education is increasingly a market-driven sector and while the rest of the world rushes to build universities of UW-Madison’s quality, we’re challenged in our efforts to preserve our quality and enhance it if shrinking state support isn’t combined with some new tools,” says Martin, who notes only 18 percent of UW-Madison’s budget comes from state taxpayers.

Terry Hartle, a senior vice president with the American Council on Education, notes that state officials, given Wisconsin’s bleak financial situation, will need to be open to new ideas because it will be difficult to cut spending enough to balance the budget and raising taxes is politically unfeasible. “So looking at alternatives that in other times may not have even been on the table is the order of business in a lot of states today.”

Higher education leaders in Wisconsin have been asking to be cut free from various state oversight strings for years but have met resistance on various fronts. Now, some say, the timing might be right for these proposals to finally gain political traction since the state’s new Republican leadership, which has an affinity for smaller government and less regulation, has shown signs of being supportive. In fact, the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in December released a report titled “Making the University of Wisconsin More Accountable Through Greater Autonomy,” which mirrors much of Martin’s proposal and advocates for giving the UW System more freedom if it’s willing to become less reliant on taxpayer dollars and be bound by performance measures linked to such issues as student retention and achievement.

“I think there is potential there for some surprising bedfellows to come together and produce something both sides would like,” says UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. “Even though one might expect the chancellor and governor to come from different places on issues, they have had productive conversations and seem to be in broad agreement on detaching the university from the state apparatus to a certain degree.”

Although Gov. Scott Walker will likely ask university leaders to do more with less heading into the 2011-13 biennium, Burden says there may be a unique opportunity for the university to forge a new kind of relationship with the governor’s office.

“Not thinking traditionally is going to help here,” explains Burden. “Gov. Jim Doyle was supportive of the university in a traditional fashion. He tried to keep funding strong, and the university appreciated that, to be sure. But in that relationship, the university was giving up the opportunity to pursue these other remedies — greater flexibility, less adherence to state rules and those kinds of things.

“So having a Republican governor with a different approach, who is more interested in market mechanisms and less interested in traditional forms of state support opens up this new kind of dialogue that just wasn’t possible in the past.”

Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, would only tell the Cap Times “we are still evaluating” the university’s proposal.

There are, however, skeptics and critics of Martin’s plan within and outside the university. Students are worried that more autonomy for the university will translate to less taxpayer support and another spike in tuition — especially if UW-Madison is granted the right to set its own rates. Ben Manski, the executive director of the Liberty Tree, a Madison-based group working for democratic reform, argues that state leaders need to see the funding of higher education as a vital public good that’s essential to a healthy free society, not a drain on scarce resources.

“I’ve seen with my own eyes the way corporate lobbyists have been directly responsible for lowering the tax burden for the wealthy and major corporations, and the defunding of public education has been part of that agenda that was developed in the late 1970s,” says Manski, who last fall ran for the Assembly in District 77 as a Green Party candidate. “Part of what they’ve been after is transferring the burden to middle-class people and to young people. The result of (Martin’s) proposal would be declining public funding, increasing tuition and a ballooning of student debt.”

Martin and her leadership team also have frustrated some by only speaking in general terms about the proposal and refusing to divulge more details about how much money UW-Madison believes these flexibilities and freedoms could save the university — and cost future students in the form of tuition hikes. And while Martin and Co. insist the university doesn’t want to privatize or pull away from the UW System, some are worried that if state leaders grant the university greater freedom, politicians will find it much easier to choke off funding in years to come.

“Is it wise for states, or is it in the long-term interest of the people, to reduce the support for their state institutions?” asks Judith Burstyn, a chemistry professor who is chair of the University Committee, the executive committee of UW-Madison’s Faculty Senate. “Although these efforts to gain more freedoms are happening all around the country — and even though state budgets are enormously pressured — the question is, are states setting their priorities right?”

•    •    •    •

Martin’s proposal isn’t unique, as a range of public higher education leaders across the nation have spent the past decade attempting to cultivate new relationships with the states they serve. The movement, in large part, is an attempt to address what colleges and universities view as a long trend in declining funding by states.

In Wisconsin, nearly 14 cents of every state tax dollar in 1980-81 went to funding the UW System. Today, that figure is closer to 8 cents, even though the UW System — with a record enrollment of more than 180,000 students across its 26 campuses this fall — educates 20,000 more people than it did three decades ago.

With the state facing another significant budget deficit and a new governor promising to fill that hole without raising taxes, Martin is joining the chorus in arguing that if the state is going to have limited resources to commit to Wisconsin’s flagship institution, the university needs new flexibility to help it retain its standing as one of the world’s premier research institutions.

Wiley recalls that roughly 20 years ago, UW System officials thought they had cut a deal with then-Gov. Tommy Thompson and the Legislature to put in place much of what Martin is proposing today. The university would be granted some new flexibility and, in return, was to meet a list of performance targets, such as graduating a certain number of students and getting them through in a timely manner.

“The state said, ‘Wow, those are good ideas,’” recalls Wiley. “And then they imposed the mandate that we had to meet all these standards but didn’t give us a single additional flexibility.”

In 2001, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute published a report titled “Chartering the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” which argued the “pace of the world has quickened, but UW-Madison is constrained by a historic bureaucracy and sets of rules and regulations that were established to protect the public purse.” This paper argued UW-Madison should be set free from state regulations and be held accountable by “goals and objectives through a newly created charter.”

UW System leaders refocused their pitch after then-Gov. Doyle cut $250 million from the system’s budget to help fill a $3.2 billion deficit heading into the 2003-05 biennium. Following a yearlong study, the UW Board of Regents released a 2004 report titled “Charting a New Course for the UW System.” This paper argued for, among other things, stabilizing taxpayer support for higher education, streamlining the state building process, and adding flexibility in how the system purchases goods.

The fact that proposals like these typically gain some initial backing before dying on the vine is why UW-Madison officials are being so cautious in moving forward with Martin’s New Badger Partnership.

“The concepts and specifics are well known because we’ve been talking about these things for years,” says Darrell Bazzell, UW-Madison’s vice chancellor for administration. “But the chancellor stopped short of putting a very specific proposal on the table because she’s hoping for a signal from the new administration that they’re interested in having this discussion. And based on what their appetite is for change in this regard, we would like to move forward from there with the UW System and Board of Regents to craft a more definitive proposal.”

Those who have spoken with Gov. Walker’s leadership team indicate both sides are taking a close look at what has taken place in Martin’s home state of Virginia, which signed a Higher Education Restructuring Act in 2005. In fact, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s December report argues the Virginia model could translate well to Wisconsin.

Public institutions in Virginia that meet annual performance goals are given more freedom in procuring goods, setting tuition, managing capital projects, and hiring and paying their faculty and staff. Christian Schneider, the author of the WPRI report, says the time might be right for these proposals to finally garner a serious look in Wisconsin.

“If not now, when?” he says, acknowledging there are many similarities between his report and the New Badger Partnership proposal. “I think you’re going to see some big changes in all levels of government, and I think the Virginia model would be a good one to look at.”

However, as Schneider’s WPRI report indicates, very little study has been done on the Virginia model of deregulation, so little is known about its effects. It’s the lack of research and detailed information about UW-Madison’s own vision that makes some fear the university is moving too quickly away from a model that has served it well for decades.

“Folks are just hell-bent on advancing this with a lot of assumptions and with no numbers crunching to determine whether or not there is, in fact, going to be savings,” says Noel Radomski, the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.

And as officials with Virginia Commonwealth University learned last month, there are no guarantees state leaders will keep a hands-off approach. In mid-December, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced plans to withhold state money from VCU because he thought the university’s 24 percent tuition increase was “unacceptable.” Virginia Commonwealth’s tuition hike was expected to generate $33.4 million; McDonnell said he plans to withhold $17 million in state funding to send a message about hiking tuition too quickly.

Other states that have recently tweaked their relationships with their university systems include Indiana and Ohio, where state funding levels are tied to graduation rates and credit completion. And lawmakers in Louisiana are giving public institutions greater flexibility in setting and using tuition if schools graduate a higher percentage of students. Public universities in Michigan, meanwhile, have long managed their own finances with limited state oversight, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor uses its highly regarded reputation to charge among the highest tuition of any public university nationally for nonresidents ($36,133 in 2010-11).

Whether any of these ideas, or the many others from across the nation, take root in Wisconsin remains to be seen. “Some ideas cross ideological boundaries pretty well,” says John Coleman, chair of UW-Madison’s political science department. “The chancellor’s plan is one of them, and it is consistent with the kind of new arrangements between state governments and public universities that have been achieved in a range of states of varying political makeup.”

•    •    •    •

If there is one part of Martin’s New Badger Partnership proposal that is catching the attention of some students, it’s her push for UW-Madison to be granted the right to set its own tuition and to use those funds as it deems necessary.

UW-Madison sophomore Sam Polstein, who is chair of the Associated Students of Madison’s Legislative Affairs Committee, has  been trying to collect as much information as possible on this topic from both university officials and Gov. Walker’s leadership team — but with limited success.

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“It’s been hard to gain student input on the partnership and create a lobbying strategy due to the lack of true details about the plan,” says Polstein. “From the students’ perspective, we’re really worried about our tuition.”

The Board of Regents currently set tuition rates for all schools in the UW System, with approval by the state Legislature. Although there are a few exceptions — such as dollars collected through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, a differential tuition plan charged to those on the UW-Madison campus — the vast majority of tuition funds collected must be used for educational purposes and can’t, for example, be skimmed off to fund need-based financial aid.

Martin has noted she’d like to see the university’s tuition closer to the midpoint of what UW-Madison’s Big Ten Conference peers charge. Such a move would translate to a tuition hike of roughly $2,700 per year for in-state undergrads, who currently pay nearly $9,000 in tuition and mandatory student fees. The university estimates the current average annual cost-of-attendance for an in-state UW-Madison undergrad already is more than $20,000 when room and board, books and supplies, and other miscellaneous items are tacked on.

“Tuition needs to be part of the answer to diminishing state support, but not the only answer,” says Martin, who notes Iowa is the lone Big Ten school that charges less for in-state tuition than UW-Madison. With added flexibility, Martin says she is committed to using a portion of any tuition hike to fund need-based aid for low- and middle-income students. In theory, those who can afford to pay more will, while those who can’t would shoulder less of a burden.

But, argues Manski, “financial aid has failed, utterly, to keep up with the costs of tuition. Plus we’ve seen a complete reversal in the ratio of student grants (that don’t have to be repaid) and student loans. These increases will only continue to add to student debt.”

According to UW-Madison’s most recent Data Digest, nearly half of those who earned an undergraduate degree from the university in 2009-10 graduated with debt, and of those the average amount was $21,659. Nevertheless, a recent survey of young alumni conducted by the American Council on Education found that 92 percent of those who graduated from one of the UW System’s four-year institutions said they were charged “a fair price for their college education.” Similarly, UW-Madison was just rated the ninth-best value among public universities for in-state students in a ranking by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

“I think there are those who can afford to pay more, and the university is well-served to charge a competitive tuition,” says Burstyn, the chair of the University Committee. “UW-Madison is one of the best bargains in the country, in my opinion, in terms of getting a really, really top-notch education.”

•    •    •    •

David Walsh, a Madison attorney and eight-year veteran of the UW System’s Board of Regents, says Martin deserves kudos for examining creative ways to keep UW-Madison strong, especially during these challenging times. But during a December Board of Regents committee meeting, he said he was afraid of political roadblocks.

“All I’m saying is there’s a reason good ideas aren’t adopted, and we have to be aware of that with various constituencies,” says Walsh, a partner in the Madison office of Foley & Lardner, in a phone interview.

While UW-Madison leaders believe they could “save millions” if allowed to handle their own construction projects, Walsh notes such a move could be devastating to the Department of Administration, which helps oversee state building projects and is paid 4 percent of all construction costs for those services. Similarly, Walsh adds that if UW-Madison or the UW System is granted the authority to purchase its own goods, other state agencies might end up paying more for what they need because the bulk of supplies purchased will decline.

“There are different interest groups who are going to have a say in this,” says Walsh.

And then there’s Rep. Steve Nass, a Republican from the Town of La Grange who is chairman of the Assembly’s Colleges and Universities Committee. The perpetual UW critic says he’s not going to help advance Martin’s proposal to cut oversight strings without close scrutiny.

In fact, Nass says he still plans to introduce legislation that would cap at 4 percent annually the amount tuition and mandatory fees can be raised at UW System schools — something that wouldn’t mesh with Martin’s desires. Over the past decade, tuition and fees have jumped an average of more than 9 percent per year at UW-Madison, and that rate would likely increase under Martin’s proposal.

“Every two years for the last 20 years I’ve been here, it’s so predictable — the university cries that if they don’t get more money, education is going to be harmed, we’re not going to be able to graduate the students we need to and so on,” says Nass. “I’m certainly open to any agency, certainly UW-Madison, coming forward with something different. But if different means more autonomy to raise tuition and fees beyond what the Legislature would deem appropriate, then it’s going to be a problem.”

If Walker championed Martin’s proposal Nass said he would still give it “the once-over. I’ll certainly have conversations with Walker if need be, but I’ll make up my own mind. I owe it to the people.”

It’s sentiments like these that make Wiley fear the worst for Martin’s proposal: “I think every chancellor in my memory has wished for this and has tried one initiative or another under one name or another. Then those ideas are taken down to the governor, we say we really need this, and nothing happens.”

That would be just fine with Manski, who says there are other ways to help assure the university can retain the quality it has built up carefully over the past 150 years.

“The solution is the same solution we’ve had in Wisconsin for a long time and it’s worked well and created one of the greatest public universities in the world — it’s progressive taxation to fully fund higher education,” argues Manski. “It’s really very simple. You raise taxes on the wealthy. And you don’t even have to raise them very much.”

While that might seem far-fetched in the current political climate, Manski says university leaders need to realize they have hundreds of thousands of students, parents and alumni to mobilize. “For whatever reason, university leaders seem to think they’re in it alone,” he says. “It’s time to mobilize and apply pressure to stop the corporatization of higher education.”