Commentary

Do Not Abandon the Rest of the Fleet

March 07, 2011

The battle over Wisconsin's budget crisis and the related protests in Madison may leave in its wake one of our state's most treasured educational legacies. Although many education leaders in Wisconsin have had little time to react to the long-range ramifications of the budget proposal detaching our flagship, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from the UW system, the proposal has gained both support and opposition. I oppose it.

My objection is rooted in the Wisconsin Idea, a cherished principle that for more than 100 years has prescribed that education should reach far beyond the university and college classroom to help shape state law, guide reform, and spark innovation. Regardless of their diverse backgrounds and ideologies, people here are unified by this idea and have long bestowed upon Madison a lead role in the collective campaign to realize it. Given that respect, many—myself included—are wary of the flagship's sailing away. Our fleet needs flexibility, not fracture, to stay true to course.

Should Madison break away from the 12 other four-year universities, 13 two-year colleges, and UW-Extension that compose the system, the Wisconsin mission of effectively, efficiently, and cooperatively serving the educational needs of all the citizens of the state will be severely compromised. The irony, if not the tragedy, is that while Wisconsin is considering a proposal to break up our system, many states around the country are doing their best to emulate our unified model. The system's president, Kevin Reilly, the Board of Regents, and chancellors of the individual campuses have consistently advocated for greater budgetary control and management flexibility to enable us all to provide high-quality education while addressing budgetary shortfalls. We have argued for this campus-based leadership flexibility across a unified university system. At Oshkosh alone, that would allow us to provide approximately 5,000 more classroom seats for every $1-million saved.

If all of the system's universities and colleges were given this flexibility, they would more efficiently and effectively leverage tens of millions of dollars for the educational benefit of the entire state. Furthermore, the campuses would be better positioned to pursue private giving for scholarships and high-impact educational programs. They would yield more broadly educated and technically skilled global citizens to recharge and retool our economy and our communities. That is the kind of transformative change the entire system needs.

With the UW system intact, Madison is far and away the best example in the nation of an "authentic" flagship university, one that has earned the right to carry a system's flag. Its prestige is the result of connection to and collaboration with the other campuses. The authentic flagship acknowledges that its excellent partners—however big or small—have played an equal part in helping it reach its echelon. Wisconsin has never known the alternative: the stand-alone, "elitist" flagship university that carries the pennant of a state but not necessarily with its peers' blessing. Such a university self-assigns its rank based on admissions exclusivity or a touted superiority in research. It is more competitor than collaborator with in-state peer universities and colleges.

In the system's current configuration, Oshkosh and its counterparts are among Madison's best cheerleaders, helping regionally, nationally, and internationally to laud the excellence of the flagship. The UW campuses are also among the biggest sources of graduate students for Madison and among the biggest employers of its advanced-degree graduates. The symbiosis yields a homegrown, sustainable prosperity.

If Madison were to leave the system, it would become the other campuses' toughest competitor. The state of Wisconsin would move from its internationally regarded "professional-collegial system" of higher education to a highly criticized "political system" characterized by unnecessary competition and duplication, divisiveness, and back-room deals. Governor Walker's budget proposal also calls for a newly appointed Board of Regents to oversee a separate UW-Madison. It is not unreasonable to assume that this board would be politically connected.

Indeed, the fiscal ramifications are enormous and must be carefully considered. Madison currently receives 38 percent of our state general-purpose revenue to serve 23 percent of the system's students, and it is quite likely that this gap would widen. I would not be surprised if a detached Madison were to receive 50 percent of those funds within six years, at the expense of Oshkosh, Green Bay, La Crosse, and all of other abandoned partner campuses.

The fiscal waters get even choppier when we consider the impact this historic change could have on tuition. Because a detached Madison would be allowed to raise tuition as it saw fit, huge pressure would be placed on the abandoned institutions to remain affordable. Significantly less state support and tuition for them would mean diminished quality for the 130,000 students—the 77-percent majority—who call a University of Wisconsin campus besides Madison their educational home.

It is neither overdramatic nor an exaggeration to argue that this split would contribute to greater socioeconomic and political inequity and lead to a separate, unequal, and inaccessible educational experience for countless students. This is not the time for Wisconsin's educational flagship to abandon the fleet that has proudly kept it steaming forward for generations.

Richard H. Wells is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.