By Tom Still


MADISON – While there’s no shortage of public chatter about University of Wisconsin administrators taking sick leave or how much the football coaches are paid, there’s rarely much talk about the core 21st century challenge facing the UW System – in fact, all of public higher education in America: Are our public universities becoming “privatized” without the benefit of a debate on the pros and cons?


The answer is yes, according to former UW System President Katharine Lyall and Kathleen Sell, co-authors of “The True Genius of America At Risk.” It is a book worth reading by state policymakers in Wisconsin and beyond as they confront massive structural changes in how public universities are financed and managed.


At a time when leading economists, business leaders and journalists such as Thomas Friedman (“The World Is Flat”) agree the United States must maintain its competitive edge in science, mathematics and higher education in order to compete globally, almost every state is investing proportionately less in higher education and letting other revenue streams pick up the slack.


Worse yet, the gradual but steady change has come about over the last 25 years absent any formal or even informal plan, and therefore without much public debate about what it means for America’s future workforce.


It’s not that Lyall or Sell argue against some measure of private-sector strategies and goals within public universities – in fact, they see public universities as fueling a strong economy, and economic growth as necessary to a vibrant higher education system. But they’re alarmed about the almost unnoticed drift away from 140 years of federal and state policy, dating back to Abraham Lincoln and the 1862 creation of “land-grant” universities, underpinning public higher education.


“Let us be clear,” Lyall and Sell wrote. “Reduced state investment in public colleges and universities is not the preferred path in an ideal world. If economic and fiscal policies and access to public education all conspire to discriminate against educational opportunity for the middle- and lower-income citizens of this nation, our future as a nation will be darker.”


The book cites data familiar to any high-school junior who hears a lecture from his guidance counselor or his parents: Get a college degree; the chances are very good you’ll earn more. But that’s not necessarily the point public universities need to sell to policymakers, Lyall and Sell wrote. Policymakers must be reminded that investment in public higher education creates public benefits, as well as private. Those benefits include increased tax revenues from greater economic activity, enhanced productivity, higher consumption, increased workforce flexibility, decreased reliance on government financial support by individual citizens, lower crime rates and an improved societal ability to adapt to new technologies.


While the public benefits of investment in higher education are clear, the investment itself has been dwindling by most measures. In 1973, state dollars accounted for 50 percent of the UW System budget; today, it is 28 percent. Tuition accounts for another 19 percent of today’s budget, while money earmarked for specific purposes – gifts, grants, dormitory fees and more – makes up the rest. Policymakers may believe all money is fungible, meaning the university can freely shift cash from one account to the next, but that’s not likely under donor, federal or university rules, not to mention the rules imposed by the Legislature itself.


Rather than whine about it, however, higher education must examine emerging new models and make the case that a 21st century economy demands a 21st century “public purpose university.” They argue such universities must meet nine needs:

  • Maintain and foster the core American values of educational opportunity and academic freedom.

  • Remain accountable for meeting its public goals, adopt measures, and report publicly on its stewardship of public resources and public purposes.

  • Focus its public service on a few areas of expertise and self-consciously articulate and coordinate its work with that of other institutions with complementary expertise.

  • Make its financial structure more transparent to the public so that publicly financed functions are distinct from private supported functions.

  • Swim, rather than drift or drown, in a newly competitive educational environment with private and for-profit institutions on a more equal basis.

  • Raise more of its overall financial support itself and plan to finance its own growth into new endeavors.

  • Keep and reinvest the profits from its intellectual property.

  • Be more entrepreneurial and aggressively service-oriented.

  • Advocate with a clear voice for sustaining the social compact states have had for 150 years to provide educational opportunities for students who work hard, prepare academically, and aspire to higher learning.


 “The True Genius of America At Risk” is far from an apology for the excesses of higher education; in fact, it points out failings that must be addressed. Rather, it is a blueprint for the discussion about where to go next – especially in a society that will need all the educated citizens it can produce.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “The True Genius of America At Risk” was published by Praeger Publishers, Westport, Conn. ISBN: 0-275-98949-6.