After all the smoke clears from the budget battles, we may find that, other than Gov. Scott Walker's astounding move to crush public sector unions, no proposal will have as profound an effect on the future of the state as Walker's takeover of the UW-Madison.
What began as a proposal by the UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin to give her greater administrative authority may in the end be a Faustian bargain that does great harm to the institution.
When Martin approached the then-candidate Walker with the proposal for the cheerily titled New Badger Partnership Plan, she may not have anticipated that a few months later the governor would propose in the state budget that UW-Madison should split from the 26-campus UW-System formed 40 years ago.
The proposal for a university "public authority" in the governor's proposed biennial budget gives slightly more authority to the campus to independently purchase equipment, manage staff and oversee construction, when all of the funds are privately raised.
The chancellor also has some increased authority to set tuition, but that would be subject to approval of the new board and of course, the Legislature. In other public universities that have become "public authorities," such as University of Virginia, the legislature cut state aid when the chancellor "excessively" increased tuition.
(An alternate explanation of the chain of events is that Martin wanted the split from the UW System all along and saw the upcoming budget cut as an opportunity to run her own operation.)
But there are a few major catches to the new arrangement. First, Gov. Walker will appoint a majority of the Board of Trustees overseeing the university. This new board, if it is similar to Walker's previous appointees, will have a decidedly conservative caste to it. The Board of Regents, which will continue to govern the remainder of the university, was entirely appointed by Gov. Doyle. Even after a full term, Walker's appointments will control only a minority of the Regents.
In other words, instead of the Doyle-appointed Regents, Walker will have an immediate board majority to (in his words) "facilitate faculty entrepreneurship."
Second, the institution would not only lose the political backing of the UW System, one of the most politically potent forces in the state, but would be in competition with it. With a campus in nearly every Senate district and students and system employees everywhere, all legislators have a significant interest in supporting their two- or four-year campus.
The 25 campuses of the umbrella of the system will directly compete with the Madison campus for more than $1 billion in state funds to the UW System each year. And the political math does not favor the Madison campus.
The employees of the Madison campus are represented by about 10% of the members of Legislature, all Democrats in overwhelmingly Republican bodies. UW-Madison has been less than popular among many new legislative leaders (the Fitzgerald brothers, Steve Nass, etc.) and, after the month of protests, our "favorability" has not improved among the Republican majority.
And hostile newly powerful legislators can whack at the UW-Madison without having to fear hurting their local campus.
In an attempt to cope with reductions in state aid, Chancellor Martin may have substantially overplayed her hand. She may have won new limited powers but lost governance authority to political forces hostile to UW-Madison's interests and values.
David Ahrens was a researcher for 13 years at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He is a member of the Wisconsin University Union.