Are you with us or against us?

That was the general tone during much of Thursday afternoon's UW System Board of Regents meeting at the Pyle Center on the UW-Madison campus.

On one side of this now-contentious debate is UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, who is determined to help her university gain some long-sought freedoms from state oversight to set tuition rates, oversee construction projects and hire faculty -- even though that means being granted public authority status by Gov. Scott Walker and breaking free from the UW System.

And on the other side of the aisle is the UW System and its governing body, the Board of Regents, which are determined to both keep Wisconsin's flagship institution in the fold and gain similar freedoms for all of the state's public institutions -- even if that means jeopardizing UW-Madison's golden opportunity.

Welcome to March Madness, higher education style.

"I'm going to add this to one more thing the governor has accomplished -- he has accomplished dividing us here today," Regent John Drew said following a series of tense exchanges between Martin and UW System President Kevin Reilly.

Under Walker's proposed 2011-13 biennial budget, UW-Madison and the UW System each will see state aid slashed by $125 million over the next two years. That cut to UW-Madison is a 13 percent reduction in GPR funding. Of the cut to the system, each campus will see an average reduction of 11 percent in state funding, while the UW System administration is losing 25 percent of its state support.

But instead of focusing on ways to work together to mitigate these major cuts, Thursday's Board of Regents meeting took on a confrontational tone. Martin explained why she is so committed to gaining the"> public authority status awarded to UW-Madison in Walker's budget proposal; everyone else argued campuses across the system need these same freedoms and stressed a split from the system is not the way to proceed.

Reilly is concerned the breakup would: produce unneeded competition for funding between campuses; lead to unnecessary duplication at the administrative level; and be a potential blow to the system's reputation. Reilly also noted he is concerned that if UW-Madison breaks away that its tuition would spike to unacceptable levels, noting that the University of Michigan -- which is not part of a state system and runs as a quasi-private institution -- charges about $13,000 per year for in-state tuition. UW-Madison charges roughly $4,000 less.

That comparison exasperated Martin.

"Despite some of the distressing things I've heard, I will say very little and try to take the high road," Martin said when starting to address the Regents. "I do want simply to correct a few things that have been said that are flatly false. President Reilly used the example of Michigan as our model. We have said over and over again, emphatically, that the University of Wisconsin does not wish to be modeled after the University of Michigan. And to give their tuition numbers as a reason why Madison should not have separate status is unfair."

Reilly said he was glad to hear Martin had no intentions of turning UW-Madison into Michigan, and added, "I had not heard that from you before. Maybe I was not listening close enough."

Martin quickly responded, "I think I've said it about 3,000 times and so has everyone else on our campus."

Reilly later countered, "I still believe, based on the evidence, that flagship institutions on their own tend to drive tuition up faster than if they're part of a system."

The conversation grew even more tense when Martin called for an end to the "smug snottiness" she believes she has been subject to since Walker's proposal to grant UW-Madison public authority status came to light in mid-February.

"We can still disagree, but I feel the disrespectful tone about what Madison has done is really unnecessary and problematic," she said.

Reilly fired back, "Well let me say, there is no disrespect intended and I don't think saying we're smug and snotty is fair."

Regent Danae Davis of Milwaukee then told Martin, "I think that this board would be remiss in its responsibility as a board of trustees for the entire system if it didn't fight to the death for flexibilities for all the campuses."

With a wedge seemingly being driven deeper and deeper between UW System leaders and Martin with each passing minute, Regent Drew made his points.

"By putting in the budget splitting off Madison (the governor) has created this division," he said. "And if there is one thing we should know about this governor, it's he's going to do what he wants to do. If he wants to split off Madison, he's going to split off Madison. So it pains me that we're having this intra-fraternal frenzy of feeding amongst us because of what the governor has done, not because of anyone here."

Drew added that due to the significant budget cuts, "we're looking at the beginning of the end of affordable higher public education as we have known it in this state."

The Regents then passed a resolution asking that Walker's budget be amended so that UW-Madison is not split away from the rest of the system. The resolution also asks that state leaders grant all UW System schools the management flexibilities awarded to UW-Madison in the governor's budget proposal.

Reilly says it only makes sense that all institutions across the system be given these same freedoms and flexibilities to deal with massive state budget cuts. The system unveiled a proposal titled the"> "Wisconsin Idea Partnership" which outlines the steps to make this plan a reality.

Walker has indicated in recent weeks that he's open to this concept, but it's not clear how easily this can be accomplished so late in the game, which worries Martin.

Afterward, the UW-Madison chancellor -- who has been"> pushing for a new relationship between the state and her institution for more than a year -- insisted she didn't feel like the rug had been pulled out from under her.

"I still think we've got a really strong proposal and we're in a strong position," she said. "I think the Regents are trying to do their job, which they define as keeping the system together. I would define it perhaps a little differently, but that's from my perspective, as making sure the campuses flourish for the good of the state."

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