By Tom Still

MADISON – In Minnesota these days, the governor and the Legislature are bogged down in a budget fight, just like their counterparts in Wisconsin. Money is tight, just as it is in Wisconsin. But there’s an important distinction between the two states: In Minnesota, the university budget is one of the few areas of agreement, not a source of perpetual friction as it is in Wisconsin.

Although Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are behind schedule in most ways in their budget-writing process, they have agreed on spending for the University of Minnesota, even including a modest boost for biotechnology research.


Contrast that with the status of the budget for the University of Wisconsin, which appears under renewed assault in Madison for reasons that are as much about politics as they are policy. It is a stalemate that must end in order for Wisconsin to effectively compete in the 21st century economy.


The UW budget has absorbed about $250 million in cuts over the past two years, and despite Gov. Jim Doyle’s recommendation to basically hold the line in 2005-2007 spending, the Republican-led Legislature is looking for more places to cut.


In part, it’s only natural that lawmakers would look at the UW budget for more cuts when they’re facing a potential $1.6 billion deficit. It’s one of the five largest spending areas in state government, an exclusive club that also includes Medicaid, local government aids, K-12 education and corrections.

But what lawmakers often overlook is that the UW budget has taken whacks larger than the rest of those categories over time, to the point that public funding for the University of Wisconsin System is lower on a per capita basis than any other state in the Big Ten Conference. The slide has been gradual, almost unnoticeable in some ways because private gifts, federal grants and tuition have closed most of the gap. However, UW administrators argue it has now reached a crisis point: Deeper cuts will mean a diminished university.

Very few lawmakers want that, of course, but they’re angered by what they see as patterns of excess or left-wing politics. Some lawmakers are still smarting over the UW-Whitewater decision to allow Colorado professor Ward Churchill to speak on campus this spring. Others were aghast when UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorensen unilaterally rejected an Army ROTC program from campus to protest the military’s policy of rejecting openly gay recruits. The decision appears to rub against Regents policy, if not federal law, and System officials are moving to overturn it.

System officials have lobbied for health benefits for gay partners of employees, a policy that is commonplace throughout the Big Ten and most of academia, but a sore point for some conservatives.

Even when UW officials try to be politically balanced, they’re criticized. UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley was a non-paying guest at a recent fundraiser for state Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, and a minor stir was whipped up from the left.

On the fiscal side, a Legislative Audit Bureau report alleged UW administrative costs are too high. However, UW officials countered with facts and figures of their own. Car allowances for campus chancellors have been another sore point, although that practice isn’t unusual in public or private institutions.

The Sorensen-ROTC incident may best illustrate the political problem facing the UW and its leadership. Sorensen didn’t get the approval of UW System President Kevin Reilly or the Regents before he acted to ban ROTC, because that’s basically how the system works. Chancellors have an enormous amount of discretion. The UW “System” is far more decentralized than most people imagine – and the result is that System presidents and Regents spend a lot of time apologizing for incidents they probably couldn’t have prevented, even if they wanted to do so.

Both sides in the debate over the UW budget should work toward resolving key differences before real damage is done. For lawmakers, that means not viewing the UW in isolation as just another budget expense item, but looking at what it does to drive the Wisconsin economy. And for UW officials, it means stopping waving red flags in front of an already engaged bull.

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