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Dawn of a New Day for UW System

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) applauds new flexibility and accountability in our state university system.

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) writes:

Across the country, college students are finishing summer jobs and internships and gearing up for another school year. As students return to campus, they will encounter changes including new roommates, new professors, or new buildings. Students will also find other changes on campus due to the recently passed state budget.

Wisconsin is fortunate to have a good public university system. The University of Wisconsin (UW) System boasts 13 four-year and 13 two-year campuses. UW-Madison, the system’s flagship institution is regarded as one of the finest research institutions in the country.  However, as budgets shrink, the UW System receives less money.  Governor Doyle’s 2009-11 state budget reduced funding to the UW System by more than $100 million, and reduced funding further as the state’s economic condition worsened.

Governor Scott Walker worked with then-Chancellor Biddy Martin to develop a comprehensive plan, dubbed the New Badger Partnership, and proposed removing the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the UW System and provide UW-Madison flexibility as a public authority.  Opponents, not wanting to see the flagship university leave the fold, proposed an alternative Wisconsin Idea Partnership extending funding and operational flexibility to four-year campuses.

Ultimately, a UW-Madison public authority did not prevail because some believed it was just too bold and large an undertaking for the state budget process. At the same time, the realities of a poor economy and a budget that reduced spending resulted in some increased expenditure flexibility for UW.

The budget approach used during the past actually created bureaucratic disincentives for UW System campuses to find efficiencies. The budget appropriated funds for specific purposes, making for use it or lose it budgeting.

The recent state budget gives campuses more budgeting flexibility.  Each UW System campus will receive funding in the form of a block grant and will not be penalized for creating efficiencies.  Each campus administration will be able to exert more local control during their budget process. In addition, the state budget created a segregated fund for the UW System to ensure money meant for higher education is not raided for other government projects.

Part of allowing more flexibility for the UW System is ensuring campuses are held accountable for the results of their performance. Campuses are now required to submit annual accountability reports to the legislature and governor. These reports will help elected officials track key issues such as overall academic performance, accessibility to low-income students and Wisconsin students in general, and information about each campus benefits to the community. Armed with information from accountability reports, administrators will be able to identify best practices at other campuses, and elected officials will be able to consider granting high-performing campuses additional flexibility.

While a UW Madison public authority was considered by some to be a large undertaking during the state budget process, the core issue is still worth examining. Since 1971, the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Universities system have been combined, and the UW System has not changed significantly.

Is the current UW System the most effective way to structure state-funded higher education? That is the question a 17-member task force is expected to answer. The bipartisan task force will study whether to restructure the UW System.  The task force will also make a recommendation as to whether to grant additional flexibilities to UW System campuses. The budget called for the task force report by the end of 2011; however, upcoming legislation is expected to move the due date for the report to the end of 2012.

By allowing flexibility while requiring increased accountability, the changes to the UW system provide all the right incentives.  As a result, the University of Wisconsin system will continue to provide a top-notch education with greater efficiency. 

Public higher education in Wisconsin is excellent.  Like anything else, not keeping abreast of rapidly changing conditions can threaten quality.  Considering new ways to structure the UW System can improve the quality of UW education and improve UW finances.

Did you think UW-Madison should split from the system?

erika August 29, 2011 at 10:59 PM
UW-Madison should definitely NOT split off from the system. On October 11th, the UW system will celebrate its 40th birthday--unifying our public colleges & universities into one system is one of the best decisions the Wisconsin State Legislature has ever made. Now I'm not usually a supporter of consolidation and centralization, but when it comes to balancing statewide policy & individual campus control, UW system students, faculty, and administrators do a top-notch job. Sure, there are many improvements and that's a continual process. Splitting UW-Madison from the system is the greedy idea of elitists who see the hard-working researchers and brand recognition of our beautiful flagship as a way to make money. Take note: this is not about fairness or opportunity. This is about profits and exploitation of the public commons. It is our responsibility as Wisconsinites to defend public education for the public good. Democracy has always depended on it.

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