Members of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee have signaled they’re approaching information overload when it comes to the proposed separation of the UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System. Is there a way, key lawmakers have asked, to construct a phased plan for giving the university more freedom to run its own affairs?

The answer should be “yes,” because the costs of limping along with the status quo are too high.

Leaders at UW-Madison and throughout the UW System have contended for years – almost before the ink was dry on the 1971 merger of the University of Wisconsin with the Wisconsin State University system – that the university needed more independence from state regulations. These rules cover everything from hiring to purchasing to construction, often adding time and cost to any process.

That’s particularly true at the UW-Madison, a 42,000-student campus that competes with the likes of Stanford, Harvard and MIT when it comes to landing research dollars, star faculty and world-class students.

But the UW-Madison is treated much like any other campus – or any other state agency, for that matter – when it comes to red tape. Perhaps that’s the price of being a public land-grant university, but it has become a death of a thousand paper cuts in an era when other leading research universities are free to compete.

Gov. Scott Walker, in his two-year budget bill, accepted the detailed advice of Chancellor Biddy Martin and proposed putting the UW-Madison on a separate track. While the UW-Madison would receive less financial support from the state, the Madison campus would gain freedom to manage its own affairs under the leadership of a new public-private authority.

Most UW System officials and chancellors believe a separate UW-Madison is an awful idea, mainly because they fear what might happen if two governing bodies (a new Madison authority and the Board of Regents) compete over scarce resources.

But state dollars are already scarce, with or without autonomy, so the issue becomes how to make lemonade out of some particularly bitter lemons. Here are some possibilities for a tiered or phased approach:

  • Allow the UW System’s two doctoral campuses – Madison and Milwaukee – immediate freedom to run their respective graduate and research programs as they see fit. Undergraduate programs, while connected in many seen and unseen ways, could wait.
  • Lay out a schedule for autonomy, with doctoral campuses followed by other four-year comprehensive campuses and, finally, the two-year system. It need not happen all in one year or even one budget cycle.
  • Continue existing student transfer agreements, research collaborations and other campus-to-campus programs. For example, the WiSys Technology Foundation is helping build the research-to-jobs capacity of campuses outside of Madison, but likely wouldn’t exist without the support of UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. If such mechanisms remain in place, it builds confidence that greater autonomy can work.
  • Make the UW System more of a facilitator and less of a “middle man.” Some campus leaders in Madison insist it’s easier to build joint programs with private universities in Wisconsin than with other UW System campuses – and not because those campuses resist. 

It’s possible that Martin and the UW System’s leadership are firmly entrenched on the issue of autonomy. But that hasn’t been the case with Walker, who has repeatedly said he would listen to alternatives that preserve the value of higher education for students, the state and its economy.

Leaders of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee also appear ready to hear other ideas on how to handle the Grand De-Merger. The right solution could help the UW-Madison as well as other UW campuses attract and retain key faculty, enhance research spending and promote job growth. Most important, it could also ensure that Wisconsin continues to produce graduates who can compete in the 21st century workforce.

Whether it’s a savvy Ph.D. researcher on the Madison campus or an uncertain freshman at UW-Barron County, everyone can gain from more flexible management of public higher education in Wisconsin. Lawmakers should use this opportunity to begin the process of achieving that goal – or risk forever losing the chance.

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