For more than a year, UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin argued that onerous state regulations make it difficult to effectively use available funding to sustain a world-class university. Members of the UW Board of Regents, fellow UW chancellors, and others embraced this call for flexibility, recognizing that all campuses could operate more efficiently if state laws were amended.
More recently, however, the chancellor is pushing a new argument, insisting that the only way to save UW-Madison from certain peril is to split from the UW System, creating an independent governing structure for the flagship campus. This is a major departure from the earlier argument, and many people think it is a bad idea — both for UW-Madison and the other UW campuses.
I write as a longtime administrator at the UW-Madison and former chief of staff to Chancellor Donna Shalala. For eight of those years, I spent a great deal of time lobbying in the state Capitol for the university. I strongly agree that the restrictions on construction, hiring and budgeting should be changed. A separate governing board for the UW-Madison, however, would be harmful to my university.
In 1971, Wisconsin had two systems of public higher education, the University of Wisconsin that included Madison, Milwaukee, Parkside and Green Bay, and the Wisconsin State University System that included all of the other public universities in the state. A lack of cooperation between the two competing systems led to repeated fighting in the Capitol. Frustrated by this counterproductive structure, a succession of governors sought a remedy, and Gov. Patrick Lucey proposed the merger, which was approved on a bipartisan vote. The unified system that resulted has served Wisconsin taxpayers and students well.
Setting aside this success, Chancellor Martin insists that UW-Madison should gain autonomy similar to that held by the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia.
So how is the University of Virginia faring when they compete with other public universities in Virginia for funding? Not so well, it turns out. George Mason University, in rapidly growing northern Virginia, likes it fine. Because that part of the state is growing in political influence, George Mason University’s budget seems to be expanding at the expense of the University of Virginia.
How has the University of Michigan done over the years, competing with the other universities in their state capitol? When a powerful, longtime representative from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was in the legislature, he diverted funding to Northern Michigan University. That university’s funding grew so much, at the expense of Ann Arbor and other universities, that Northern Michigan University had a very tough time adjusting to the loss of funding after the legislator’s death. This may be one reason why some state leaders in Michigan are now advocating for the creation of a body similar to UW System’s board of regents.
If the new plan Martin is advocating becomes law, UW-Madison will no longer be in a system, but the other 14 universities — representing about 90 percent of Wisconsin’s population — will be. Therefore, the fight for funding in the Capitol will not be each university for itself, but rather it will be 14 other institutions against UW-Madison. Who will win? Not the UW-Madison.
Look also at Ohio State University. It operates without an integrated system. Research indicates, however, that it would probably do better if there was a system. In addition, Ohio has six medical schools — more than the state needs — because there is no statewide board to make rational decisions for the good of all Ohio taxpayers.
Another alternative apparently being considered is for UW-Madison to have a separate board, but still remain within the UW System. A similar arrangement is in place in Maine and Utah, and it causes confusion about who really is responsible for the university. If approved, this separate UW-Madison board would create a permanent tension between the UW-Madison and the other universities in the system.
The University of Wisconsin System has a 40-year history of expanding educational opportunity, curtailing administrative expenses, and protecting academic freedom. It has achieved a relatively seamless system of higher education that lets citizens transfer credits easily from one school to another, providing a wide range of college options that vary in selectivity and price.
Decisions about higher education need not be rancorous or partisan. They should be based on sound policy and facts. If you understand the facts, and love UW-Madison as I do, you will join me in strongly opposing Chancellor Martin’s plan.
Harry Peterson was a UW Madison administrator in 1978-1990 and chief of staff to Chancellor Donna Shalala from 1988 to 1990. His is president emeritus of Western State College of Colorado.