Leadership & Governance

A Public University Mends Fences With Its State

Rebecca Blank, chancellor, U. of Wisconsin at Madison

March 23, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

The University of Wisconsin at Madison has endured several years of budget cuts and intervention by the state government in its policies. Chancellor Rebecca Blank discusses winning back some funds, repairing dings to its reputation, and navigating the Trump administration.


LEE GARDNER: Morning. I'm Lee Gardner. I'm a senior reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington. I'm joined this morning by Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Wisconsin has been rocked in the last couple of years with some budget cuts and the state taking a stronger hand in some university policies. But the support, at least, appears to be coming back, and we're here to talk about that. Thanks for being with us.

REBECCA BLANK It's good to be here.

LEE GARDNER: The governor, in the last two-year budget, cut about $250 million of state support. And forthcoming to your budget, he's proposed adding $100 million back to it, about. What's behind that?

REBECCA BLANK So let me be clear that those are numbers for the whole system, across all of the four-year and a few of the two-year campuses in higher education, not just at UW Madison. So we've worked very hard to go around the state and generate that type of support. I've traveled around the state quite a bit in the last two years. We spent a lot of time with the business community, and I will say the business community has really gone to bat for us, saying that higher education in this state is one of the main drivers of future growth, and the state needs to support that.

We've done what I think are some clever things. We put up billboards in every one of the 72 counties, every billboard highlighting an alum who works and has worked for many years in that county and is a really major, well-known citizen. That got us a lot of earned media. We've really tried to make it clear how important the university is across the state in all sorts of ways, and I think it's paying dividends. And it's one of the reasons why we're looking at a budget with real money on the table. And not that there aren't things to argue about, but it's a normal budget year.

LEE GARDNER: Do you think that that message is what made the difference?

REBECCA BLANK I think that message has helped a great deal. I can't suss out how much is it that and other things. The upper Midwest is growing at about the same rate as the rest of the country, so the economy is doing OK. It's not red hot in the way we all wish it was, but it's a reasonably good year for Wisconsin. And they're clearly going to share some of that back into higher education, which is important.

LEE GARDNER: Well, tuition has been frozen, and then there is now a proposal to cut tuition by about 5 percent, I believe, but with money coming back from the state to make up for that tuition revenue loss. As you point out, budget season, a lot of conversation, a lot of things can change. Do you have any concerns about maybe that money not being there at the end of the process?

REBECCA BLANK Well, we're talking here about in-state undergraduate tuition. Let's be clear that it's that specific set of tuition. The governor has a proposal to cut tuition but then refund the difference so that we're basically left whole. I don't know what's going to happen to this. There are a number of legislators who's not very enthusiastic about the idea of cutting tuition. My sense is that if you're going to put substantial money into the university of that sort, you really ought to focus it on the students who most need the access, as opposed to spreading it widely across all students. But we'll see where that conversation goes. I don't think there's a strong support for the tuition cut. Some of it is that legislators want to use the money that would make us whole on that for other purposes. So that one is clearly on the table for discussion.

LEE GARDNER: You have said often, and including in the pages of The Chronicle, that even though tenure has been taken out of state law, it remains enshrined in the policies of the university. What do you think that it will take to convince people that tenure hasn't been damaged at Madison?

REBECCA BLANK Well, part of the problem was we got a lot of headlines and press across the nation that essentially said, when the Legislature took tenure out of state law, which was very unusual. I don't know another place in the country where tenure statutes were written into state law. That said tenure at Wisconsin is abolished. And nobody wrote the story that said Wisconsin now has tenure that's the equivalent of all their peers, right? They wrote the first story, and not the second.

So it's simply people have to, over time, come to realize that our tenure statutes look just like Michigan's, just like Minnesota's, just like the University of Washington. You put it side by side, you can't tell which this is. It's tenure that is now written and under the control of the Board of Regents, as it is at every other university I know, rather than written into state law. I don't think that is a substantial change. In fact, one might think that's an improvement. But for a number of faculty that — I would dare you to find any university in the country where the old tenure statutes get torn up and they get told to write a new tenure without causing a lot of upset among the faculty, for good reason.

But I think we've ended up at a very good place that leaves us entirely competitive. And when we're looking to hire new faculty, this question often comes up because they've read the press. And one of the things we say is, look at our tenure statutes and compare them to the place where you currently are, either as a student or a faculty member. And we've had more than one person call us back and say, your tenure is a whole lot stronger than ours. So it's one that you just have to let some time go by.

The other thing I will say is we have gone through with the tenure debate and then some of the budget cuts that hit us. It's been a rougher set of years, and we've had some real retention fights on our hands because people have come raiding. And the main message, I think, that we really want to get out is that we're back in business fully. Right? We've got a normal budget here. There's money on the table. We've been working hard to generate revenues from a variety of other sources. This is going to be a year when I'm hoping we're going to be able to do some additional cluster hiring to particularly strengthen and build on certain areas. We've launched two new research centers in the last year. That Wisconsin is back to the research powerhouse that it's been for a long time.

LEE GARDNER: One of the things I was curious about: there's been a lot of talk in higher education in the last month or so about the policies of the Trump administration, a lot of concern expressed over the immigration ban and its potential effect on universities. But it's also widely believed that the administration might roll back a number of rules and regulations imposed during the Obama years. Is there an upside to a Trump administration, potentially, for an institution like the University of Wisconsin?

REBECCA BLANK Well, like everyone, I am particularly concerned about the DACA students. Those are students who've largely grown up in this country. Wonderful students, part of our community, people who we really want to stay here and be citizens in the future. I also shared the concerns about some of the larger immigration constraints. Universities, by their very nature, are global. And if we're going to thrive and survive in a global world, we need to have people who move back and forth between our universities. Scientific conferences, staff, students, research all has to move across boundaries, and I hope that whatever we do in immigration doesn't stop that type of knowledge transfer.

All of that said, obviously there's some things on the table in the Trump administration that I think could be very good for universities if they work out in the right way, and the deregulation issue is one of them. Universities are among the most regulated of public entities. There are — I don't know what the number is, it's something a 40 federal agencies that regulate us in some way or another. And that regulation, particularly over the last 10 years, has increased very sharply. I went away from the university for five years, from universities in general. Came here, worked in Washington, and then came back, and I was slightly shocked at the extent of rules that had come into effect in just the time that I had been gone. So I would welcome that type of an effort.

Similarly, if infrastructure efforts take place. There are a number of ways in which infrastructure changes can be very, very helpful to universities, as well as they can to the citizens of all parts of this country. So yes, there are some good things that can come about in this administration, just as there are some things we're watching with some concern.

LEE GARDNER: Thanks very much for being with us.

REBECCA BLANK It's good to be here.

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at lee.gardner@chronicle.com.