By Tom Still

MADISON – A core reason why lawmakers have so far softened budget
cuts to the University of Wisconsin System is their realization it’s a
statewide economic engine – with the potential to produce even more regional horsepower.

That message has come through in many ways, from independent
economic studies to hands-on examples of how the UW System is a catalyst for
job creation and growth.

Consider the recent “Posters in the Rotunda” exhibit in the
Capitol, which showcased undergraduate research projects from 19 of the UW
System’s 26 four-year and two-year campuses. Lawmakers who strolled through the
12th annual event could sense they were mingling with
next-generation entrepreneurs, technicians and scientists who will prove
essential to Wisconsin’s workforce.

The reinvigorated mission of the WiSys Technology
Foundation, which handles invention disclosures for all UW campuses outside
Madison and Milwaukee, is another example of economic penetration. With 36
disclosures by faculty and students so far this year, WiSys inventors have
exceeded the annual totals for 2014 and 2013, and will likely soon surpass the
record (40 disclosures) set in 2012. The success is due to a number of factors,
not the least of which is a growing sense that campuses outside Madison and
Milwaukee have much to offer in terms of innovation.

None of this detracts from the economic contributions of the
UW-Madison and the UW-Milwaukee, which continue to churn out disclosures,
patent, licenses and young companies. Eight of the 13 finalists in this year’s
Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which is produced by the bipartisan Wisconsin
Technology Council, were rooted in ideas born on those campuses or others in
the UW System. That included three of four category winners and the grand prize
winner, bluDiagnostics of Madison.

The message has not been lost on Wisconsin’s 132
legislators, who represent geographic regions where a UW campus is often one of
the largest employers – and one of the largest sources of talent for local

Deepening the UW System’s ability to drive the Wisconsin
economy was the topic of a report released June 1 by the Wisconsin Policy
Research Institute, a free-market think tank based in Milwaukee. The report’s
findings stressed the need for each of the system’s campuses to become more
entrepreneurial and to better align respective missions to local economies.

While many of the report’s recommendations involved specific
governance changes, which may or may not be welcomed by the Legislature and the
UW Board of Regents, others drilled down into direct economic activity. They

  • Give campuses more latitude to create and expand
    popular programs that engage students and professors in technology transfer and
    “second-stage” economic development.
  • Expand criteria for granting tenure to include,
    where appropriate, technology transfer and business missions.
  • Protect basic research, which is foundational to
    more specific research that can be applied to solving market problems.
  • Give campuses more latitude to attract private
    investment and to convince local businesses of the potential return on such
  • Set objective measurements for the economic impact
    of each campus and to hold chancellors accountable for those results.
  • Invest in regional communications efforts to
    better tell the economic story to local business leaders, taxpayers and others.

“Economic development is inherently a local and regional
challenge,” wrote co-authors Charles Sorensen, the long-time chancellor of
UW-Stout, and Michael Flaherty. “Chancellors know their facilities’ strengths;
they know their regions’ businesses and industries; they know their regions’
economic development needs… They should be given the latitude to function more
as chief executive officers and less like provosts.”

Wisconsin lawmakers have already demonstrated reluctance to
relinquish control over the UW System, which is why Gov. Scott Walker’s
proposal to create a separate authority model has been moved to the back
burner. There should be little question, however, that individual campuses
working with partners – business, technical colleges and others – can contribute
mightily to the Wisconsin’s economy.

In truth, there is no single Wisconsin economy. The state is
comprised of indigenous economies that range from the Chicago watershed of
southeast Wisconsin to the Twin Cities umbrella of western Wisconsin and many
more in between. Helping UW System campuses contribute in their distinct backyards
is a way to push all of those economies ahead.