Allegiance to Regents’ bureaucracy is baffling

[Originally a guest column at the Badger Herald. Comments are off here.]

Discussion of the University of Wisconsin’s New Badger Partnership should be about the future, but before we do that, it’s helpful to review the past.

Pop Quiz: True or False? If we undid the 1971 System merger, we’d wind up with the same system that Gov. Scott Walker’s budget is proposing today.

The answer: False. It’s a common misconception that at one point, UW-Madison was under the control of its own board, and the other strong universities that make up the UW System were under a different board. That has never been the case, and prior to the merger, UW-Madison already was the flagship of a growing UW System. Madison and Milwaukee were Ph.D. granting universities, UW Extension put the Wisconsin Idea into action, the UW Colleges provided core instruction to freshmen and sophomores and UWs Parkside and Green Bay were comprehensive four-year universities, all answering to the Board of Regents in Madison. At the same time the Madison Regents were creating new four-year campuses, the rest of what makes up the current UW System were completing their evolution into full-fledged comprehensive universities — universities that looked remarkably like Green Bay and Parkside in scope and mission.

Every governor since World War II had proposed some sort of restructuring of higher education, and this competition to create new campuses finally provided the urgency to overcome resistance from both university systems. Even so, it was not an easy sell: David Cronon’s history of the UW reports that Democratic icon Midge Miller (stepmother to current Democratic Senate Leader Mark Miller) was opposed to the merger, and in the end it only passed the Republican Senate by one vote.

This competition was not healthy for Wisconsin, and the System merger accomplished its goals of focusing the growth of the universities for the benefit of Wisconsin, and not the prestige of one system versus another. (For more, see Cyrena Pondrom’s remarks to PROFS.)

But times change, and 40 years later I’m reminded of the Shirky Principle: “Institutions seek to preserve the problems to which they are the solution.”

And it’s worth asking, what problems are solved by having a single bureaucracy running the diverse campuses of the UW System in the 21st century?

It’s not potential competition between the Madison campus and the other schools to open new campuses around the state. Those days have passed. A standalone UW-Madison is more likely to open a campus in Shanghai than in Sheboygan.

It’s not protection in the budget — the legislature routinely gives specific directions to individual campuses, for good or ill. UW-Madison should always be clear that we are not the UW that serves the south central part of Wisconsin, but instead belong to the entire state, just as the Capitol Square belongs to the entire state and not the City of Madison. In future budgets, a vote “against” the Madison campus will be a vote against Wisconsin.

It’s not protection from duplicative infrastructure, like legal departments or purchasing services. UW-Madison already has its own versions of all of those. It’s also not clarity in academic planning or transfer credits. I’ve been the student member of the University Academic Planning Council for three years, and I can say conclusively that UW System oversight plays a minor role.

It’s not having a single oversight board for higher education in Wisconsin, because we already have multiple systems. Besides the UW System, there’s also the Technical College System. The K-12 system has a tremendous impact on higher education in Wisconsin. Both of these are represented on the Board of Regents with a single seat, just as the Board of Regents would be on the UW-Madison Board of Trustees.

It is just not clear what problem a single UW-System solves, and this allegiance to a bureaucracy baffles me. I suspect many of the opponents of the New Badger Partnership are reacting to Walker — they often cite his immediate influence on the Board of Trustees as a prime concern. (There’s a simple amendment to fix that: Require the 11 seats a governor fills to come from the UW System Board of Regents.) Beyond that, most of the opposition seems to rail against overall trends in higher education such as “sticker shock” and the outpacing of tuition to financial aid. I’m sympathetic, and I want to fight those battles, but the New Badger Partnership is neither the cause nor the solution to those problems.

I wish that we were having this discussion in less troubling times, but I am thankful Chancellor Biddy Martin had the foresight to frame the debate and not just hunker down. Imagine if she had let Walker define everything — A more “conservative” vision would have replaced the UW Budget allocation with money for vouchers and been done with it. That would have been a calamity.

I predict in 40 years, the differences between what society will want from UW-Madison and want from the other UW System schools will be even more stark than it is today. Already, the crushing debt burden and limited opportunities afterward are leading many to ask, “Is college worth it?” Each campus may adapt to answer that in a different manner, and Madison’s path forward will likely be unique among the System schools. I believe a board with the expertise and time to focus on UW-Madison is crucial for our continued success, and if the best way to achieve that is a standalone board, then so be it. I hope the Legislature comes to that conclusion, too.

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