How to get the UW System more involved in ground-level economic development.
An enormous political controversy is swirling around how the University of Wisconsin System and its 26 campuses are funded and managed. Will the system in any way be allowed to operate independently of the Legislature and the executive branch? At what level should taxpayers fund the system, with its 180,000 students and almost 6,900 faculty members?
But there’s a broader issue that is, by most measures, far more important to Wisconsin’s future: how to expand the campuses’ role in helping build the state’s economy.
This is not a new or partisan concern. University involvement in the state’s economic well-being is a found- ing principle of the Wisconsin Idea — a term coined in the late 19th and early 20th century. The system’s mission explicitly includes extending “knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses.”
The largest campuses in Milwaukee and Madison, the two that award virtually all of the UW System’s doctoral degrees, traditionally have been the most focused on this. But the other 11 four-year campuses are also specifically charged with supporting “activities designed to promote the economic development of the state” — an oft-overlooked fact.
Composed of 13 four-year universities, 13 two-year campuses and the statewide UW-Extension, the UW System has an annual all-funds budget of more $6.1 billion — including over $1.2 billion from state taxpayers.
Including private and federal research dollars as well as tech college spending, Wisconsin ranks ninth in total higher education spending per capita — an enormous investment for a state that is lagging in job creation and below average in both the percentage of the population with bachelor’s degrees and per capita income.
The tools that the UW campuses require to better fulfill their mission to foster economic growth are dramatic in scope and simple in principle.
Economic development is inherently a local and regional challenge. The 13 four-year campuses serve every community in the state. Chancellors know their faculties’ strengths; they know their regions’ businesses and industries; they know their regions’ economic development needs. To succeed, chancellors require managerial flexibility to build campus efforts and facilities to meet those needs. That means creating classroom and internship experiences that their local markets demand, providing the applied research to help solve problems and develop new products and systems, and deploying faculty and resources for the professional outreach and economic assistance their regions require.
Success in economic development statewide means thousands of ideas, partnerships and cooperative efforts, none of which can be created or managed very well from Madison.
The cultural and managerial changes this would require are enormous. Currently, the UW System is run as a top-down system with key managerial and leadership decisions made in Madison by the UW System, the UW Board of Regents, the state Department of Administration and elected officials. The system’s managerial culture is bureaucratic, risk-averse and very slow. That discourages creative problem-solving and innovative thinking on campuses. It hinders the development of business-faculty partnerships and facilities to address and solve problems and create new products and businesses. In some areas, it halts creative thinking altogether, as the system’s bureaucratic weight is simply too burdensome to overcome.
Ironically, none of the options recently batted about — including the creation of a public authority — addresses the problems with that top-down culture. The solution is not to replace one central authority with another one. What is truly needed is a localized form of oversight — local boards of directors — overseeing each campus.
The regents and the system must remain important partners. They must play the critical roles of hiring chancellors, laying out goals and expectations for success and, most importantly, holding chancellors accountable. Regents and the system should provide centralized management systems, such as payroll and information technology, and they should retain a partnership stake in ensuring basic coordination of missions among the campuses. (The state doesn’t need four medical schools, for example.) They should help campuses form clusters of excellence in which specialized faculty from several campuses can pool their resources and expertise.
But if the regents, the system and the Legislature truly value entrepreneurial management of the campuses, it can be done only if individual chancellors are allowed to manage entrepreneurially. In sum, they need more flexibility in how they manage and raise revenue and must also be held accountable for outcomes — i.e., specific successes or failures. They should be given the latitude to function more as chief executive officers and less like provosts.
More specifically, in order to help the UW System better fulfill its mission to help produce economic development, elected officials and regents should:
- Decentralize control over key management areas, including capital projects — especially those built with private funds or cooperatively funded projects such as laboratories. This in turn would provide campuses more authority over their fee-funded projects to improve the efficiency of the construction process.
- Give individual campuses more latitude to create and expand popular programs that engage students and professors in tech-transfer and second-stage economic development. Similarly, give them the authority to eliminate programs with little market demand or academic value.
- Reform shared governance. More precisely, define the academic role of faculty management and the role of chancellors, deans and the system in managing the campuses.
- Expand criteria for granting tenure and compensation and further study how and when tenure is used. Review faculty tenure every 10 years to ensure that faculty members are still pursuing their research, academic and, where appropriate, tech-transfer and business missions.
- Protect basic research.
- Give chancellors (with oversight) broader authority over faculty, hiring and compensation on their campuses.
- Establish a formula under which each campus contributes a part of its tuition dollars to the system for equalization purposes and to fund programs requiring special subsidies. But allow chancellors the ability to set the price of their campus’ tuition — including tuition for high-cost/high-value programs.
- Give local campuses expanded latitude to attract private investment and convince local businesses and investment of the potential return on that investment.
- Set up firm, objective metrics that can be used to measure the economic impact of each campus and to hold chancellors accountable.
- Invest in regional communications efforts to help build relationships with local business leaders, taxpayers, critics and others.
- Appoint a local board of directors for each campus. This would be done by regents, the governor and local leaders. Boards would include local business leaders.
- Ensure that local boards are holding chancellors accountable for success by providing campuses with systemwide standards to set goals and measure performance.