By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. — The standoff between the Wisconsin Legislature and Wisconsin’s public universities threatens to harm the state’s economy the longer it persists. There needs to be a negotiated end.
The latest salvo came Sept. 19 when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said there won’t be any UW pay raises over the next two years unless the system cuts about 189 “diversity, equity and inclusion” jobs spread across the system. The Republican majority tried to eliminate those jobs in the state budget process this summer. That move was blocked through a veto by Gov. Tony Evers.
For those professors and staff who may not get a two-step, 6% increase over the next two years, that’s a sizable economic hit – especially when many of them are already paid less than counterparts in comparable positions. The economic implications go far beyond that, however, if the standoff continues.
First, a much-needed building on the UW-Madison campus is caught in the crossfire. Although there is strong business-sector support for the project, a $347-million building for the College of Engineering has languished. The inflation clock keeps ticking, and about $150 million in private donations are gathering dust. Employers statewide are clamoring for more engineering graduates, and this building would allow enrollment to grow by 1,000 students within a few years. Major donors from Wisconsin and around the country don’t like to pledge money that isn’t used. The longer the delay, the more likely some donors will bow out in frustration.
Private donations at the UW-Madison alone account for nearly $500 million a year… and there are 12 other four-year campuses with loyal financial supporters, as well.
Second, the Legislature risks alienating a vital source of out-of-state revenue. One of the unintended consequences of the tuition freeze and limited state funding for the UW System has been a dramatic rise in out-of-state students on some campuses, mainly UW-Madison. That’s because the decade-long tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates made growth in out-of-state undergrads a financial necessity.
A recent analysis of the UW-Madison Data Digest noted there were 35,184 undergraduates in total on campus in 2022-23. The breakdown showed 17,703 Wisconsin residents paying $10,976 in tuition and fees; 3,114 Minnesota reciprocity students paying roughly the same; and 14,367 non-residents from other states paying $39,427 in tuition and fees. Those out-of-state students also spend money on housing, food and other needs that largely stays in Wisconsin.
If the non-resident rate is the “market rate” — meaning, there are plenty of non-Wisconsin students willing to pay it — Wisconsin resident students are being subsidized by their out-of-state colleagues. While not everyone from outside Wisconsin pays the full sticker price due to scholarships and other support, the total subsidy is at least $500 million. That subsidy is helping to keep Wisconsin campuses affordable for Wisconsin students.
Continued friction between the Capitol and the campuses sends a poor marketing message to parents, high-school counselors and students outside Wisconsin’s borders. That will ultimately hurt recruitment of smart, out-of-state students who could be a part of the state’s workforce.
Third, Wisconsin’s public universities don’t exist in a non-competitive bubble. They must compete for research dollars and faculty talent just like other state and private systems. It’s already an uphill fight in both categories; unbuilt facilities and threats of salary freezes don’t help.
Lawmakers certainly have their beefs with the UW System when it comes to DEI administration and barriers to free speech. Some campuses have far more well-paid DEI staff than student numbers would suggest are needed, according to a July report by the Badger Institute. On the “free speech” side of the equation, when was the last time a conservative Republican official of any rank showed up to speak on the Madison campus without risk of getting shouted down?
Those are issues to be worked out, but it’s not good business to hold hostage all that’s good about Wisconsin’s public universities. Vos and the UW’s senior leaders are talented negotiators. Let’s see that talent channeled into avoiding lasting economic harm.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.