Scott Milfred: Take your pick in UW split -- Gov. Scott Walker or Rep. Steve Nass

2011-04-16T17:34:00Z 2012-05-23T17:51:44Z Scott Milfred: Take your pick in UW split -- Gov. Scott Walker or Rep. Steve NassBy SCOTT MILFRED
April 16, 2011 5:34 pm  • 

Chancellor Biddy Martin and Gov. Scott Walker are an odd pair pushing to give UW-Madison autonomy.

But then get a load of these two guys: University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly and outspoken higher-ed critic Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater.

Reilly and Nass are fighting just as hard to keep UW-Madison in the System as Martin and Walker are battling to split it out.

It just goes to show how the contentious issue of university governance in Wisconsin is hardly a partisan issue. Just the opposite: It has created strange bedfellows that defy left-right politics. And that's a good thing. It suggests this big decision has a lot more to do with academics than politics.

Consider the unlikely Martin-Walker alliance: Martin, who is gay, describes herself as a "humanist," meaning she's extensively studied the humanities, especially German literature and women's studies.

Walker, the conservative son of a Baptist minister, dropped out of college before his remarkable rise through the Republican ranks to lead a GOP takeover.

"Even though we come from different ends of the political spectrum," Walker wrote in a recent State Journal guest column, "we both agree that Wisconsin's economic future depends on a highly educated workforce created by an affordable and effective system of higher education."

Martin and Walker argue convincingly that stagnant state funding and excessive System and state bureaucracies are hurting UW-Madison's ability to compete with other top research institutions around the globe.

The State Journal editorial board last Sunday endorsed public authority status for UW-Madison (after first meeting with Martin, Walker, Reilly, a former chancellor and Regents. We also engaged technology leaders, professors and ex-System officials).

It wasn't an easy call. The risks include higher tuition at Madison and less coordination among public campuses across the state.

But Martin has already enacted a plan to boost student aid. She also wants to keep the same high percentage of in-state students on campus while encouraging continued collaboration.

All of the two- and four-year System campuses will continue to share the "University of Wisconsin" name. And with more flexibility to reward star researchers, UW-Madison can keep its global edge while spinning off technology businesses and boosting the state economy. Other states - both blue and red - are granting similar autonomy to their top research schools.

The liberal Madison conspiracy machine suggests this is all an evil plot by Walker to take over the Madison campus. But what the new model will actually do is free UW-Madison from the micro-managing of Nass and other conservatives with histories of obnoxious, ideological meddling.

Reilly acknowledges this point, though he remains deeply concerned about duplication and higher-ed funding if the break-up proceeds and then spreads.

Nass wrote Reilly a letter pledging to join him in "vigorously" opposing the split.

That leaves Madison liberals with a vexing choice: Should they side with Walker or Nass?

Here's a better idea: Drop the partisan frame and view this smart proposal on its merits.

Scott Milfred is editorial page editor for the State Journal; or on Twitter @ScottMilfred.

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