The University of Wisconsin-Madison, the state’s flagship campus, is increasingly important to the future of Wisconsin. In a new century in which the economy is becoming ever more reliant on knowledge, the state’s lead university must be able to step up and better serve its constituency
By James Miller, Frank Cipriani, Ph.D.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a unique educational institution in the state. It is the one land-grant university, and it has a long history of service to the state. In fact, it is responsible for much of the economic success in the state in the twentieth century. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, it was UW-Madison faculty members who did the research and spread the findings that moved Wisconsin from being a not-very-successful wheat-growing state to becoming the leading dairy state in the nation for most of the twentieth century.
That same potential role is held today. UW-Madison is on the front pages of the national newspapers because its faculty members are the leaders in the world on stem cell research. They also lead in a number of other biotech and scientific areas. The University is poised to lead the state into the twenty-first century with new knowledge that can be exploited for the state’s economic benefit. The big question mark is whether it can fulfill this role when it is as constrained as it is by the rules and regulations that currently govern its operation.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, the state’s flagship campus, is increasingly important to the future of Wisconsin. In a new century in which the economy is becoming ever more reliant on knowledge, and in which the roles of the dairy industry and manufacturing are declining, the state’s lead university must be able to step up and better serve its constituency. That is a challenge. The University, while increasingly acknowledged by citizens and lawmakers as having a key role, continues to suffer the trials and tribulations of a state agency. The University must face the biennial budget dilemmas. It must compete with prisons, K-12 education, and other state activities for resources. It must compete with UW-Milwaukee, UW-Stout, and all of the other UW campuses for resources. It is forced to wait its turn by a central administration that must trade off serving the majority of the higher education needs in the state with those of serving the more qualified students that attend UW-Madison.
In previous decades, the University of Wisconsin-Madison suffered in the competition for scarce resources. In the 1970s and 1980s the reputation of the University sagged, as it failed to attract and hold top-quality faculty. The University had neither the resources from the state nor the flexibility to garner sufficient resources elsewhere to be able to maintain or increase its reputation or its production. The University dropped out of the top twenty-five universities in the nation in most rankings. Several highly visible faculty members were recruited away. Faculty salaries eroded in comparison to the University’s peer group. The size of the central administrative bureaucracy increased.
Up until the merger of the university systems in 1973, UW-Madison had been able to operate for almost a century on its own. It had been able to garner the resources and make the necessary decisions to build a very high-quality institution. It was held in high esteem in the state, nationally, and internationally. Students from around the globe sought to study there. But the consolidation of UW-Madison with the state university system began to limit UW- Madison’s flexibility. As the state suffered economic setbacks, the University also suffered financially. Higher education in the state was funded less well, and resources that might have gone to UW-Madison were shared statewide. UW-Madison had less ability to pay its faculty competitive salaries and salary increases. It could not construct the buildings it wanted without getting into the line with all of the other universities and other state institutions. It could not even attract the administrators it wanted, since it was offering highly uncompetitive salaries. The current chancellor had to take the job and then wait for legislation to be passed in order to be paid more than other chancellors in the system.
Today, as Wisconsin faces another round of tough budget decisions — making a trade-off between such areas as incarceration and investment in human capital — it is clear that UW-Madison will suffer again. It is already evident in the capital budget, as two of the promised biotech buildings have been shelved. The question of maintaining competitive faculty salaries is the next issue. Across the U.S. the economic slowdown is affecting public universities; however, some will suffer less because they have more flexibility both in where they generate their revenue and how they spend it.
Treating the flagship campus the same as the regional, non-Ph.D.-granting campuses is a sure prescription for mediocrity. These institutions have different missions, and these missions require different levels of financial support. They also require different levels of ability to compete in the national and international arena for scholars. UW- Madison must try to compete with the top public and private universities for faculty who are teachers, scholars, and researchers — individuals who can bring in large research grants and publish the results in prestigious scholarly journals. The primary assignment of the faculties at the regional universities is teaching well. Individuals who can research, publish, and teach well are a much rarer commodity than those who can just teach well. The competition for purely teaching faculty is not at all as intense.
To maintain its hard-won gains of recent years — UW-Madison did receive additional funding in the late 1990s — and to build upon these gains rather than lose them, UW-Madison must be treated differently from the other public universities in Wisconsin. It must have greater revenue and expenditure flexibility. In other words, it must have greater freedom than it currently does. If this is not given, the goose that is primed to lay the golden egg for the state will be slowly starved, forcing it to “lay an egg” rather than lay a golden egg.