By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. — Viewed from the perspective of Republican state legislators, it’s easy to see why some of them repeatedly question the University of Wisconsin System or, especially, the UW-Madison campus.
Those lawmakers may think some campuses have gone overboard on “diversity, equity and inclusion,” or DEI, which is spurring contention nationwide. They wonder if campuses are committed to freedom of speech across the political spectrum. They question admissions policies they think hurt kids of modest means from rural districts. They wonder about structural deficits at 10 of UW’s 13 four-year campuses at a time when enrollments appear to be trailing down. They question why the Madison campus doesn’t rank higher in business-sponsored research.
Those frustrations shouldn’t be acted out by refusing to fund a much-needed building for the UW-Madison College of Engineering.
But that appears to be what happened last week when the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, which is made up of Senate and Assembly members with a GOP majority, declined to approve a $347-million engineering building needed to replace an aging structure and to meet increasing industry demand for engineering graduates.
To many Capitol observers, the action was a surprise because planning money had been approved in a past budget; $75 million had been approved for a related utilities overhaul for the engineering campus; and a coalition of business groups that included many Republican-leaning associations had pushed for work to get underway. The $347-million total includes $150 million in private donations, much of which has or will come from engineering graduates who are now running companies in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
And, by the way, the UW-Madison College of Engineering is turning down well-qualified students from Wisconsin and elsewhere because there’s no room to put them. For every seven applicants, only one is admitted. Meanwhile, competitors such as Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois build whatever facilities are needed in the 21st century economy to accommodate talent from close to home and beyond.
Is the engineering building doomed? There is reason to believe the answer is “no” because the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee still has time to add it back to the two-year budget. If not, individual legislators of either party could push for a vote on the Assembly or Senate floor. That could embarrass GOP leadership if it prevailed.
Let’s examine some of the Republican misgivings (as perceived by me) about funding the new engineering building, which would replace a Stalinesque structure rooted in the 1930s.
- Policies on DEI are evolving everywhere, with courts and state bodies defining the rules. Wisconsin is no exception. The same goes for making sure invited speakers aren’t shouted down on a public campus. Admission policies at every college in America will likely change soon if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down race-based preferences, which appears likely. That means a system of “economic status” preferences may be on the horizon. In short, some things are beyond UW-Madison’s control.
- Structural deficits are real, but lawmakers should ask themselves a few questions. Are they prepared to close low-enrollment campuses, either two-year or four-year? Have state funding decisions over time contributed to those deficits? Are they willing to give financially “healthy” campuses their own bonding authority?
- The UW-Madison is eighth among all U.S. public and private universities in research “sponsored” by federal and other sources, but it ranks much lower — 52nd — in research paid for by private business. Seven Big Ten campuses do better overall, according to the National Science Foundation. Broken out, the UW-Madison College of Engineering was 27th in the latest NSF survey and could move much higher in the rankings if it had modern facilities. Why punish one of the top performers within UW-Madison?
Wisconsin has other fine engineering campuses, public and private, but demand for UW-Madison graduates is stronger than ever at a time when industry needs well-trained engineers in all disciplines. Let’s hope negotiations breathe new life into a project that will help Wisconsin’s economy for decades to come.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.