By Tom Still

BALTIMORE, Md. – It’s easy to understand why individual legislators or even the Legislature as a whole would be miffed at the University of Wisconsin. Multi-million-dollar computer system flops… Lecturers who peddle unpopular conspiracy theories… Administrators accused of bizarre behavior … and complaints about rising tuition and declining access.

But it’s sometimes hard to understand why those same lawmakers can’t look past their legitimate short-term concerns and take a longer view of the value of the university to the Wisconsin economy.

If the Board of Regents and UW administrators aren’t persuasive to state policymakers, perhaps it’s time for independent advice from a university administrator whose state is forging ahead in the tech-based economy of the 21st century.

“There is a crisis in America today… For the first time in our nation’s history, we are developing an educational deficit,” said University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, who spoke Thursday at the State Science and Technology Institute conference in Baltimore. “Business as usual in our country will no longer work. A few years from now will be too late to reverse these trends.”

Those were unusually pessimistic words from a college leader whose state is performing well by most “knowledge economy” indicators. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is the No. 1 research university in the country, as measured by dollars, and the University of Maryland system would rank 10th if all spending was lumped together. Maryland is first in the nation in academic research and development spending per capita, third in the number of adults with college degrees and fifth in the number of Ph.Ds in the workforce. Helped in large part, but not entirely, by its proximity to federal research labs in the Washington, D.C., area, the state has a thriving private-sector economy.

Still, Kirwan is worried because of trends outside his state’s borders. Some examples:

-    Among industrialized nations, only the United States and Germany have a declining percentage of young adults (25 to 35 years old) with college degrees.
-    The nation’s share of the global production of Ph.Ds in science, math and related fields has declined from 52 percent two decades ago to 22 percent today.
-    The nation is losing is edge in some critical tech-based fields, such as silicon chip production, as well as traditional manufacturing sectors.
-    The nation has a chronic shortage of K-12 teachers who can teach science, engineering, technology and math, the so-called STEM disciplines. A federal study suggested the nation needed to produce 10,000 such teachers a year for 10 years, yet, according to Kirwan, few states are taking that challenge to heart.

Kirwan said the Maryland university system is adopting a platform pioneered at the University of Texas, which is now producing 600 graduates per year who have a science-related degree and a teaching certificate. The “UTeach” program recruits freshmen from STEM classes and gives them a stipend to work in K-12 schools while they pursue their degrees.

“The only way we can achieve the goal of 10,000 (new STEM teachers per year) is if every state creates a UTeach-like program,” Kirwan said.

Maryland has its budget problems, like any other state, but the governor and Legislature here have agreed to a dedicated revenue stream to support higher education and are developing a “compact” to measure outcomes. Perhaps that is an approach that can be followed in Wisconsin, where lawmakers may approve more funding for the UW System if goals for building the state’s educational and economic capacity are met.

While other nations invest and soar ahead, the United States is living on borrowed time when it comes to science and tech brainpower. Budget gridlock is not the answer; a compact to produce results is the solution.

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