By Tom Still
MADISON – Ask the average Wisconsin citizen how the UW-Madison touches his or her life, and you’re likely to hear something about Badger football, perhaps a mention of the UW hospital, and maybe a gripe about nephew Steve being turned down for admission even though he posted a 3.8 grade-point average in high school.
During his tenure as chancellor of Wisconsin’s flagship public campus, John Wiley has done what he could to expand the list of commonly held (and positive) UW-Madison perceptions. He hasn’t always been successful, but he will leave a solid foundation for his successor when he retires in September 2008.
The reach of the UW-Madison in Wisconsin is wider and deeper today than when Wiley became chancellor in early 2001 after three decades of work on campus as a professor, researcher, dean of the graduate school and provost. That’s especially true when it comes to UW-Madison’s dealings with the business community. Here are some examples:
- Not long after Wiley took office, he took to heart complaints by business leaders who said they couldn’t penetrate the campus bureaucracy. With the help of a largely external group that listened carefully to business statewide, Wiley dismantled an existing structure that was too inwardly focused and replaced it with an outreach office directly tied to his own. Today, the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations is a “front door” to researchers and other services that can help businesses grow. In four years, OCR has handled more than 2,600 company contacts, about 1,600 requests for information and made more than 200 presentations to business groups.
- Industry-based consortiums on campus have become the norm in some colleges and schools, such as engineering and business. Not that Wiley or his deans invented industry consortiums, but they made it a priority – and countered the image that university research isn’t nimble enough to respond to business conditions. In the College of Engineering alone, 15 consortia tackle issues ranging from small engine research to RFID opportunities to polymer research.
- He worked with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the non-profit organization that handles university discoveries, when it wanted to serve campuses outside Madison. Formed in the 1920s to patent and license discoveries on the Madison campus, WARF could have easily stuck close to home. Instead, it created the WiSys Technology Foundation to work with other UW System campuses. It’s too early to claim impressive results – but a solid platform for harnessing innovation outside Madison is now in place.
- Wiley has become an ardent supporter of the UW-Milwaukee’s efforts to expand its own research and development base. While some business leaders and politicians in Milwaukee want to portray UW-Madison as hoarding research dollars, Wiley firmly believes one of the best things that could happen to the economy of southeast Wisconsin is a stronger R&D capacity at UW-Milwaukee. He has backed Chancellor Carlos Santiago in his efforts to secure modest state funding and to leverage that with private donations and industry grants. Paranoia about Madison among some people in Milwaukee will never disappear, but so long as Wiley is around, UW-Milwaukee has a powerful ally.
- While some don’t appreciate his bluntness, Wiley has often taken his message about the value of the university on the road. He’s spoken at meetings of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in four different locations, for example, often drilling down into why public support for the UW-Madison is essential to attracting outside dollars – and growing the overall Wisconsin economy.
From fundraising to building a modern campus infrastructure to managing a $1 billion enterprise, the job of chancellor at the nation’s No. 2 research university might easily be focused within walking distance of Bascom Hill. Wiley has also done what he can to nurture the “Wisconsin Idea” by reaching beyond Madison to all corners of the state. That role came as a bonus with Wiley, and it won’t be easily replaced.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.