By Tom Still
It was dubbed “Finding Common Ground,” a Sept. 5 summit to bring together state legislators, University of Wisconsin regents and other university leaders to talk about ways to mend fences after a series of trust-eroding episodes.
As one veteran UW chancellor remarked in half-jest during the five-hour meeting, the amount of “common ground” remaining between the UW and the Legislature these days is “so tiny that one of the rules is no pushing.”
Indeed, the credibility gap between the Wisconsin Legislature and the UW System is wide because of Capitol flare-ups over issues such as tuition increases and the size of its financial reserves. But it’s not so wide that it shouldn’t be bridged for the good of the state and its economy.
Read the full commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
The Legislature and the UW often come across like a feuding couple that never really intend to separate, but who each have valid claims about the other partner not listening or understanding.
Most legislators can’t comprehend why the UW didn’t reveal it had built a $650 million reserve, spread among all of the campuses and the system administration itself, before asking for another tuition increase. As a result of this spring’s reserve-fund flap, tuition has been frozen for two years.
Lawmakers also want the university to remember it’s not the only game in town when it comes to state spending priorities, with Medicaid, K-12 education, local government payments and corrections also high on the list.
Those same legislators say they want more transparency in all of the UW’s finances, performance standards tied to improving the workforce and the economy, and better communication. As one speaker noted, “Legislators don’t like surprises.”
University leaders counter that lawmakers should know any enterprise the size of the UW should have a “rainy day” fund, that state support for higher education in Wisconsin continues to slide as a percentage of total revenues, and that the same legislators who want the UW to be more entrepreneurial shouldn’t try to micro-manage campuses from afar.
As for better communications, the UW folks note, how about establishing some clear pathways to navigate the Legislature’s 132 elected members and its hundreds of staffers, some of whom lack the institutional memory to be good listeners?
Moving beyond the “you-just-don’t-understand” stage of the UW-Legislature marriage is essential, because the economic stakes are so high. Much like university systems in the other states, the UW System must quickly evolve in an era when academic business models, teaching methods and community expectations are up for grabs.
Here are a few ideas for how the state’s No. 1 dysfunctional couple can work together for the good of the state economy, if nothing else:
■ Use existing bipartisan legislative platforms, such as the Legislative Council and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, to offer straightforward advice about UW goals and accountability standards. Not every decision should be made inside partisan caucus meetings.
■ Encourage the university to make technology transfer activities, such as taking part in startup companies, a part of faculty hiring and tenure decisions. The University of Arizona recently announced it will do so, for example. It’s a way to change the outmoded incentive systems for attracting and retaining talented faculty, at least in the sciences.
■ Consider ways to lure companies closer to campuses or settings where university R&D might take root. One approach is establishing tax-incremental financing for research parks; another is establishing “tax-free” zones around campuses, an approach being pioneered by the State University of New York system.
■ Establish highly visible business development portals at all four-year campuses, not unlike the UW-Milwaukee Research Foundation or the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations.
■ Create entrepreneur-in-residence programs to bring seasoned investors to campus, where they can single out ideas that have the highest prospects for commercialization.
■ Make it easier to attract more industry-sponsored research by not exposing companies to disclosure requirements that put intellectual property at risk.
■ Lift Vietnam-era bans on classified research. A long list of excellent universities have done so, including Virginia, Colorado and Michigan. Johns Hopkins is the nation’s No. 1 research university precisely because it conducts classified research.
■ Give the regents the freedom to charge higher tuition to out-of-state students. UW-Madison, in particular, is a bargain for non-Wisconsin students. Every out-of-state student helps underwrite the cost of educating two in-state students.
The “Finding Common Ground” meeting was a solid start, assuming lawmakers and university officials alike want to make this often-fractious marriage work.