Commentary

A New Command for Wisconsin's Flagship

March 07, 2011

For more than 150 years, the people of Wisconsin have worked to build a world-class research university. Despite the state's modest population and modest wealth, they have succeeded.

Wisconsin is one of only three states with public universities ranked in the top 20 universities in the world in faculty productivity. It boasts one of only two universities in the United States to have been in the top five in research funding for 20 straight years.

Inspired by the Wisconsin Idea—the idea that education should influence peoples' lives beyond the classroom—the University of Wisconsin at Madison has educated generations of the state's young people, contributed to scholarly advances in every field, served the state's communities, collaborated with political leaders on policy innovations, supported its industries, made life- and environment-enhancing discoveries, and created businesses and jobs. As regions all over the world race to establish major research universities, Wisconsin must preserve the strength of one of its greatest assets. The Madison campus is a treasure, whose quality neither the state nor the nation can afford to lose.

In the face of declining state support and excessive regulation, Madison's constituencies have advocated over time for change in the way we are governed. State support now accounts for only 17 percent of our overall budget, yet state statute and policy make it difficult for us to use the other 83 percent of our budget in the most effective ways possible. The evaluation teams for the two most recent reaccreditation visits (in 1999 and 2008) warned that Madison's bureaucratically encumbered governance threatened to erode its quality.

Now we are faced with steep reductions in state aid, after years of declines in support from the state for our core activities. If Madison has to absorb deep cuts while remaining constrained by layers of red tape and policies designed for a completely different kind of institution, its outstanding faculty, staff, and students will begin to look elsewhere. The state and the world will be poorer for it.

In anticipation of a new governor and a state-budget deficit, we designed the New Badger Partnership, a case for greater flexibility and closer alignment of responsibility with authority. Our goal is to become more self-reliant so we can pursue our public mission in a more efficient and equitable manner. Having presented our case for over a year, and having gained support among alumni, state business leaders, and colleagues in the University of Wisconsin system, we were gratified to learn that the governor had accepted the merits of the argument. We did not expect but understand the wisdom in his proposal that greater flexibility for the Madison campus be realized in the form of a public-authority model. Public authority, which has no content definition in state statute, is available for public institutions with a strong case for more flexibility and local authority.

That model would separate us from the university system by giving us a separate governing board. Despite a different administrative structure, however, we believe that interinstitutional relationships can be preserved and even enhanced under this new arrangement.

The Madison campus is committed to its ties with other institutions in the university system and aims to enhance our student-transfer agreements, our research collaborations, and our many contributions to outreach. It is in everyone's interest to maintain mutually beneficial institution-to-institution relationships, and to build on them. Some chancellors in the Wisconsin system have characterized this moment as a rare opportunity to move in a direction they have been pushing for many years, with Madison leading the way, showing that with adequate flexibility and acceptance of responsibility, each institution can more effectively use its particular resources in pursuit of its mission, while remaining accountable to the public.

In addition to providing a first-rate education and offering a range of public goods to the state, Madison is unique in the system in the degree to which it conducts nationally and internationally competitive research across disciplines. Because of its size and mission, the university already has administrative functions that some worry would be duplicative of the system. On our own we compete nationally and internationally for talent. We bring more than a billion dollars in research money into the state each year, plus external support from philanthropy and out-of-state tuition, all dependent on the university's great faculty and well-earned reputation. Madison's success and its profile are crucial to helping Wisconsin improve its economy in a knowledge-based global environment.

Madison is responding to the hand it has been dealt. That includes public-authority status, which offers the long-term benefits of increased effectiveness in the management of limited resources.

Our goals do not elevate Madison at the expense of others. They simply acknowledge, analyze, and seek solutions to the realities we face as a major public research university at a time when research universities have never been more important or more competitive with one another. Public-authority status honors the university's public commitments, while freeing it from administrative excess and allowing it over time to rely less significantly on tax dollars and tuition increases.

One opponent of the new model has characterized the separate board as a divorce with negative consequences for the children. I believe the strongest relationships allow individual parties to flourish. Siblings can choose to go their separate ways and still remain connected to one another, out of genuine and mutual interest, not by parental decree or the suppression of difference.

I hope we can move forward by recognizing our diversity, finding creative ways to ensure coordination, and working to the meet our institutions' specific challenges for the good of the public and generations to come.

Biddy Martin is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.