In an incendiary parting shot, outgoing UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley reopened a feud with conservatives in and out of the Capitol by accusing the state's largest business lobby of undermining support for the school in the Legislature.
Wiley's essay in the September 2008 issue of Madison Magazine criticized Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce for pursuing policies he said limited the flagship public school's growth and presented the biggest roadblock to the state's economic success.
"Our politics hasbecome poisonous swill, and the most influential voice for the business community has been taken hostage by partisan ideologues," he wrote.
The essay comes within days of Wiley's replacement, Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, taking the school's reins and is the latest in a series of criticisms of the business lobby.
It sparked a spirited defense from WMC and response from state lawmakers - including criticism from some UW-Madison backers.
"This will lead to (conservatives) going on to new university bashing rather than them taking it to heart," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, a member of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee who agrees with the substance of Wiley's remarks. "Sometimes we need to be as smart with who delivers the message as we are with the message itself."
Wiley, who will become interim director of the Institutes for Discovery, a public-private research entity at the university, defended his commentary in an interview Thursday.
"They've (WMC) become for all practical purposes a partisan political lobbying organization instead of a strategically focused business organization," he said.
WMC mostly supports Republican lawmakers and has called for lower taxes and fewer regulations on business.
Martin, who takes over as chancellor Sept. 1, said she didn't think Wiley's stinging treatise would affect her leadership and that Wiley has the right to speak his mind.
"The way I feel is I'm eager to work on building positive working relationships," she said. "I hope this is an opportunity for renewal and a fresh start."
Jim Pugh, a spokesman for WMC, called Wiley an "excellent" chancellor but said the business group was a "strong supporter of the University of Wisconsin."
"We're somewhat mystified by his comments," Pugh said. "They're somewhat uncharacteristic for an outgoing University of Wisconsin chancellor."
UW, lawmakers battle UW-Madison, the state university system and some lawmakers have been engaged in an ongoing battle for years.
University officials have complained about state funding for the school, while lawmakers have criticized what they consider mismanagement there.
Lawmakers set aside $2.19 billion in state money for the University of Wisconsin System in the 2007-2009 budget, if recent spending cuts are included, according to the Legislature's non-partisan budget office. That's up about $157 million, or 7.7 percent, over the $2.03 billion budget for the state's universities when Wiley took over as UW-Madison chancellor in 2001.
By contrast, inflation rose between 2 percent and 3 percent each year during Wiley's tenure as UW-Madison's costs increased and its enrollments grew, said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
"However you slice it, they've had no real increases in funding from fiscal (year) 2001 to fiscal (year) 2007 and in real terms it's been a decline," Berry said.
Governors and lawmakers from both parties are responsible for the university's funding woes because almost all new money in the state budget in recent years has gone to school aids and Medicaid, he said.
In the essay, Wiley didn't criticize lawmakers by name. But in a separate interview with the magazine he singled out Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, for what he considered inflammatory rhetoric bashing the school.
Mike Mikalsen, an aide to Nass, called Wiley an "arrogant elitist" and said the essay could affect Martin's relations with the Legislature.
"It's John Wiley stealing the thunder of Biddy Martin, who should have this honeymoon period as she tries to lay out her agenda," Mikalsen said. "What this unfortunately does is it changes the dynamics of what people are going to be talking about."
But Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, defended Wiley's comments, saying the business lobby's calls for tax cuts hurt programs like higher education. Some lawmakers, he said, are "hell-bent" to hurt the university.
"WMC's had their blinders on that the only way to improve the economy is to hand out tax cuts to businesses, which means you have to cut funding elsewhere," he said.
Gov. Jim Doyle also defended Wiley. "I have great respect for John Wiley and the job he did at the university, and I agree that extreme ideologies are not the way to move Wisconsin forward," Doyle said in a statement.
Criticism of WMC The essay is the latest criticism of WMC over its political agenda.
Earlier this year, Epic Systems of Verona, which had more than $500 million in revenue last year, invoked a policy of not doing business with vendors that belonged to WMC. The policy prompted a Janesville construction company working with Epic to pull out of the business group.
Paul Soglin, the former Madison mayor who's engaged in a campaign to get businesses to withdraw their WMC membership, said he's trying to start a statewide organization of business, labor and education leaders that would focus on economic development issues. Soglin said the idea was still in an early stage but he had talked to high-profile leaders such as Doyle about it.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, declined to comment on Wiley's specific criticism of WMC. But he said Wiley correctly identified the need to discuss the state's economic future and how UW-Madison fits into it.
In Wiley's wide-ranging essay, he rebuked the state's prison system as "badly in need of reforms" and called the state's building system "scandalous" because of its inefficiency. He outlined a need to support high-tech, high-level jobs, citing Minnesota as a model of economic strength, and called for a part-time Legislature.
He said he decided to write it after coming across a copy of an article he wrote for Madison Magazine in 2003 on the financial burdens of financing higher education. Saying he believed that many of the problems with declining state funding still remained, he wrote this article.
He said he didn't intentionally wait until the end of his service as chancellor to launch the critique, but he did think it would be published in September, after he had stepped down.