MADISON – Enterprising candidates can score easy points with state voters this fall by reminding them that the University of Wisconsin hires conspiracy theorists as lecturers, pays accused administrators to do nothing, and squanders millions of dollars on computer systems that don’t work.

Or those candidates can talk about their plans to make Wisconsin’s great university system even greater.

Unfortunately, the second choice requires a lot more homework and may be a political liability. If you’re running for a seat in the Wisconsin Legislature and your opponent is vowing to storm Bascom Hall with tar and feathers in hand, it’s hard to come across as a defender of an institution that keeps finding new ways to embarrass itself.

But committed candidates must keep a constructive defense of the UW in mind, for as much as university-bashing may resonate with some voters this fall, most also realize (or should) that a healthy higher education system is essential to the state’s economic well-being.

Wisconsin cannot prosper in the new world without better educated workers. The UW System is a major supplier of those workers, and reasonable plans to make it more responsive to the needs of employees, businesses and the state’s entrepreneurial economy deserve careful thought. There is simply too much invested in Wisconsin’s 158-year-old university system to risk permanent damage over a few well-publicized mistakes. Reform, yes; book burnings, no.

Some legislators have declared the latest UW System budget proposal as “dead on arrival” in the Capitol. They’re justifiably angry over what they see as UW blunders and even arrogance, and they’re not willing to spend a lot more on the university until a yet-to-be-prescribed amount of crow is eaten by the Board of Regents and top administrators.

Fair enough. But a closer look at the budget itself indicates that reform may be beginning from within. The UW “Growth Agenda” being pushed by President Kevin Reilly is an aggressive restatement of the traditional Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the university exists to serve the citizens of Wisconsin, the nation and the world. It needs a closer look.

The UW budget calls for increasing the number of degree-holders in the state, improving the economy and keeping the universities affordable. It seeks $144 million in new state funding on top of the UW System’s current $2 billion to continue existing programs and pay for new initiatives. The shopping list includes $51 million to pay for a research initiative at UW-Milwaukee and increase enrollment at UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh, to cite a few examples.

Tuition would rise by 3 percent for 2007-08 and 1.96 percent the following academic year in what Reilly said was the lowest recommended increase since at least 1980. It’s an attempt to respond to concerns that the UW System was becoming unaffordable after years of tuition increases.

Not that anyone has been listening, given the UW’s habit of stepping on its own headlines, but Reilly has been talking specifically about his “Growth Agenda” since February. Here’s some of what he told the Board of Regents then:

•      “We intend to grow the research capacity at UW-Milwaukee, in conjunction with the metro-Milwaukee private institutions, and to use that research base to invigorate the greater Milwaukee economy.
•      “We must fuel the biomedical and biopharmaceutical engines at UW-Madison so that we not only discover cures for disease, but also create spin-off companies and high-wage jobs.
•      “We will help UW-La Crosse with its “tuition-driven” growth plan, and we will support UW-Stout’s emergence as “Wisconsin’s Polytechnic.”
•      “We will grow the economy of the Fox Valley through UW-Oshkosh’s Baccalaureate Completion Program, and UW-Green Bay’s plans to expand its student body.”
•      “With our Adult Student Initiative, UW-Extension and UW Colleges will become first points of contact statewide in connecting adult students with the academic programs that best meet their educational needs.”

For all its public troubles, the UW System is laboring to reposition itself as an invaluable state asset in the 21st century “Knowledge Economy.”  That may not make for good politics this year, but it should be good policy for years to come.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.