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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Light Rain
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OPINION

Giving the UW-Madison more freedom with the New Badger Partnership makes sense
Breaking up is right to do


Credit:Kris Olds
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Since I graduated from the UW-Madison last May, my sense of attachment to the university has actually increased. Still, I couldn't help but feel like a poseur as I filled out a Wisconsin Alumni Association membership form online.

The part where I was asked to make a contribution was especially humbling. I grimaced as I realized that the alumni association depends on folks who casually write checks for more than I made all last year as a freelance writer and barkeep.

But thank goodness for all those rich people. Without them, the past few years might have been disastrous for my alma mater. State aid, which already represents a paltry 18% of the UW-Madison's budget, has consistently declined in the past decade, as governors McCallum, Doyle and now Walker have dealt with a structural deficit (left by Gov. Tommy Thompson) by demanding that the UW do more with less (or maybe less with less).

This year is going to be especially painful. Gov. Walker has proposed $250 million in cuts for the UW System, including $125 million from the UW-Madison. That's because Walker is not willing to balance the budget by raising taxes on the wealthy or the middle class (he's raising them a tad on the poor).

Getting a better deal for the UW would mean demanding even deeper cuts to K-12 education and health care programs. And forget about cuts to prisons, which account for a larger slice of Walker's budget than higher education; mere talk of sensible corrections reform makes Democrats cower and Republicans seethe.

This isn't cynical thinking. This is political thinking. And while political thinking can lead to all sorts of bad ideas, it can also in some instances prompt good ones.

I think that may be the case with Walker's call to split off the UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System.

The plan, which also has the backing of UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, holds that making the UW's flagship university independent will make it more efficient.

Dubbed "The New Badger Partnership" by Martin, it would make the UW-Madison a public authority and grant the university more control over its finances. Although state support will continue, it would come from a block grant, with fewer strings attached. The UW would also gain more discretion over the 85% of its funds that don't come from the state, including the $60 donation I made when I joined the alumni association.

Currently, for example, the UW isn't allowed to spend much of that money to boost the salaries of its underpaid professors. Although faculty compensation here lags behind all other Big Ten schools, state employee pay schedules prevent the university from rewarding particularly productive or outstanding professors with the type of pay they can earn at other universities, including public ones.

The new plan will also free up the UW-Madison to offer more scholarships to low-income students. Currently, only 21% of UW-Madison students have access to need-based financial aid. That's half of the total at the Michigan and Minnesota flagships.

Yes, Michigan has much higher tuition, and so will the UW-Madison in the coming years. That will happen regardless of whether Walker's plan passes. Harvard's tuition is also horrifically high, but nobody with a family income below $80,000 pays a dime of it.

Chancellor Martin has promised that families with incomes of less than $80,000 would not be subject to the coming hikes. All students and faculty need to do is hold her to that promise.

Some of the plan's critics raise valid concerns. For instance, UW professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who studies education policy, doubts the change will lead to a more egalitarian university, as low-income applicants are often scared off by a university's sticker price, no matter how much financial aid they are eligible for.

Moreover, she says other schools that have followed the public authority model usually don't fulfill their pledges to increase scholarship grants: "When they don't generate as much revenue as they expect, they cut back on financial aid."

But why can't UW become the exception? Should we not make the attempt to do better, just because we may fail?

Some Republicans in the state Legislature, which must approve Walker's plan, say it probably does not have the votes needed to pass, at least not as part of the state budget bill. They doubt the wisdom of splitting off the UW-Madison to deliver flexibility that all UW System campuses seem to want.

Other objections are those predicated on fears of privatization and corporatization. But in fact, the UW is already largely dependent on private sources of revenue.

Should we get rid of all of that money in the name of removing corporate influence from education? Of course not.

The investment in the Madison campus that comes from private entities is a huge boon to the local and state economy, and it makes the UW-Madison an even more desirable place to study or do research.

The New Badger Partnership will help the UW-Madison get even more money and spend it more effectively. It will help the university show that Scott Walker's budget cuts won't keep it from being one of the best and most accessible universities in the world.

Jack Craver is an Isthmus contributing writer and blogger; see TheDailyPage.com/thesconz.

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