UW-Madison could be forced to raise tuition by 20 percent over the next two years if the state cuts $50 million from the university's budget — one scenario laid out in a memo from UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin to Gov. Scott Walker's administration.
The memo outlines how UW-Madison could separate from the rest of the University of Wisconsin System, giving the state's flagship university more freedom from state oversight to set tuition, make personnel decisions, purchase goods and construct buildings.
Martin and other System leaders have long sought such flexibility in exchange for something that has become a grim reality for them — declining state aid.
In an interview with the State Journal on Thursday, Martin said Walker and his staff approached her in late December about including the concept in his budget, to be introduced Tuesday.
Despite the anticipated cuts in state aid, Martin called the administrative proposal "a good model for UW-Madison."
"I'm passionately devoted to ensuring that UW-Madison remains a world-class research university," she said. "It is for the good of the state. If this is the way we can do that, I consider my responsibility as a leader of this institution to pursue it."
But some System leaders say Martin negotiated with Walker without telling the Board of Regents about it.
"I am critical of this being done behind closed doors," said Regent David Walsh.
"It's too important to Wisconsin. It needs to be discussed, aired in the open."
The memo — which Martin drafted Jan. 7 — lays out a model where UW-Madison would have "public authority status," meaning it would operate with more independence from the state.
Martin and others in the System argue state regulations cost them money — preventing them from taking part in cooperative purchasing agreements with other campuses and forcing them to pay state fees on building projects.
Under the proposal, UW-Madison could have its own governing board, appointed by the governor and UW-Madison, which would have the power to set and raise tuition and to circumvent some state rules.
But Martin said she doesn't know if the numbers in the memo — which are based on a $50 million cut to the university's base funding — will appear in the budget.
"They never said it's going to be a $50 million cut," she said. "They simply asked us for information."
In order to accommodate a $50 million decline in funding, tuition would need to increase 26 percent over the next two years, an amount that is "unacceptable," she wrote.
Instead, according to the memo, the university could hold the tuition increase to an average of 20 percent over the next two years by making up the rest of the funding through savings and private fundraising.
Walsh said he is concerned about the affordability of college with tuition increases at those rates.
More flexibility for all
Top officials with all 13 UW System four-year universities and the head of the UW Colleges met with Walker at the Capitol on Thursday morning for about an hour.
UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow said he and other chancellors told Walker that if UW-
Madison is granted relief from state centralized control, all campuses should get the same flexibility.
"I'd be concerned if there were to be big cuts in state funding and UW-Madison is the only campus with the ability to mitigate those cuts through tuition increases," Gow said. "Then you'd have a situation where Madison would remain strong at the expense of other campuses, and that would be unfortunate."
Walker told the group he does want all campuses to have more regulatory flexibility, but it would be too statutorily complicated to free them all at once or as one big group, according to UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson.
Patterson said he came away from the meeting with the understanding that UW-Madison will be spun off first, followed by UW-Milwaukee and then, as a group, the rest will get more autonomy.
UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields said he was very concerned going into the meeting because he "had the sense that UW-Madison was going to be placed in a different situation than the rest of us."
Now he feels differently.
"The governor seems committed to working with us to provide the same flexibility" for other campuses, Shields said.
— State Journal reporter Doug Erickson contributed to this report.