Creating the Capacity to Manage and Compete
The University of Wisconsin System (UWS) is one of the most important institutions in the state. This status stems not only from its primary missions of instruction, research, and public service, but also from its sheer size, economic impact, and effects on the lives of Wisconsin’s citizens. Because of this, the citizens of Wisconsin have a vital interest in the continued success of the UWS as it attempts to adapt to a changing fiscal environment.
The results of a survey by the Wood Communications Group indicate a deep ambivalence regarding the UWS on the part of Wisconsin’s citizens. They admire its programs, but believe the System could be better managed and more efficient. Press accounts of UW management problems have contributed to this ambivalence. These perceptions of management issues in the UWS must be addressed if there is to be a rapprochement between the citizens of Wisconsin, their representatives, and their university system.
Management issues arise within the context of the governance structure of the UWS, its enrollment history, budgets, and planning processes. The UWS governance structure has resulted in a highly decentralized system in which there is a diffuse sharing of authority among the Regents, System President, Chancellors, Faculty, Academic Staff, and Students.
The UWS budget has undergone a number of significant reductions over the last ten years, although the overall budget has actually increased mostly due to funding for cost-to-continue items such as debt service on facilities, utilities, and staff compensation. It has accommodated these reductions through enrollment limits and tuition increases. This limited availability of new funds is particularly difficult for a decentralized institution like the UWS to manage.
The UWS does not have a comprehensive, systematic, long-term planning process but, rather, it accomplishes planning functions through Regent policies, the planning activities of the individual campuses, Regent approval processes, and planning that takes place in separate programmatic areas such as promotion of diversity and other areas.
A number of obstacles to University management are identified including:
- the University’s governance structure, characterized by overlapping authorities and extreme decentralization;
- a management culture, characteristic of universities generally, which does not value efficiency;
- external constraints imposed by state government;
- internal university management practices;
- conflict over the role of UW System administration which raises concerns as to whether state-wide educational needs are being served as opposed, or in addition, to the interests of individual campuses and their constituencies; and
- the structure of the UWS which combines radically different types of institutions under one board.
The cumulative result of these obstacles is an impaired ability to accommodate change and to generate the internal resources necessary to maintain the quality, competiveness, relevance, and vitality of the UWS.
Although the UWS is clearly successful in many areas, it is also clear that it would be in a better position to adapt to its current and likely future fiscal environment were it, and state government, to act to eliminate or minimize obstacles to management that have been identified in this paper.
The following actions would move in that direction:
- address the UWS’s plea for greater management flexibility and autonomy from the rest of state government;
- review the governing statutes of the UWS to eliminate obsolete language, to provide clearer lines of authority, and to modify fiscal emergency provisions to allow staffing adjustments due to reorganizations, changing academic needs, and elimination of duplication;
- examine faculty workload and productivity; and
- create a separate governing board for the UW-Madison.