With the election behind us, I hope to turn more attention to some of the original focuses of The Sconz, including my beloved alma matter, the University of Wisconsin.
A couple weeks ago I wrote an article for WisBusiness about a recent UW economic summit, at which four speakers gave their projections for the U.S. economy in the coming months and years. One of the speakers, UW Foundation President Mike Knetter, described the importance of UW to the state economy.
He cautioned against small tax cuts that come at the expense of higher education, which he pointed out brings in $1.3 billion of research money every year. He also called for the system to be better insulated from state politics.
"Universities are economic entities ... it is not wise to let [UW] be run too much as a political entity," he said. Because Democrats tend to support more funding for education and some Republicans have voiced interest in allowing the UW more independence, Knetter was unsure of how the elections at the state level would affect the university.
I contacted Knetter again after the election, and asked him to elaborate on UW's future under new state leadership. I will quote him at length:
As other states and nations have come to appreciate the promise of higher education, our leadership position is in jeopardy. And as competition heats up, of course, prices of our most critical resource -- faculty thought leaders -- increase faster than inflation. Meanwhile, the fiscal condition of our state is precarious in part because we have not been able to gain enough traction in Wisconsin in knowledge intensive companies and create enough high paying jobs, especially for college graduates. These fiscal challenges portend financial challenges for the university.
...The juxtaposition of this opportunity and fear is what led Chancellor Martin to propose the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates and more recently the Badger Partnership. In order to be all we can be for the individuals and the state -- maintain our scale and quality, create opportunity for students, and continue to attract export revenue and create jobs -- we seek more autonomy to propose an appropriate tuition and enrollment strategy and to have greater flexibility on expenditures.
A radical restructuring of UW governance is more likely to come via Scott Walker than any previous governor. Not only has Walker signaled interest in granting UW more independence from the state, but in the face of a $3 billion budget deficit, as well as pressure to make good on promises of tax cuts, he is desperate to reduce state financial obligations to anything, UW included.
The comfortable GOP majorities in the legislature also seem to indicate that Walker's way will be the way forward for UW.
What will be interesting to see is the role Rep. Steve Nass, the incoming chair of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, plays in the process. A 20-year veteran of the lower chamber, Nass is a devout anti-UW demagogue who has used his position to call for deep cuts into the UW budget, occasionally over issues as trivial as one loony history professor. In one instance he proposed eliminating all state funding for UW Law School, as well as that for veteran students.
A cost-cutter may seem like the natural ally to Walker and his plan to separate UW from the state, however, in the past Nass' criticisms have taken a populist tinge, in which he decries rising tuition as fattening greedy administrators at the expense of the common Wisconsin student. He may not like it then, that sovereignty for UW would likely mean higher tuition for many students -- even if it means increased financial aid for the poor and working class.