By Tom Still

MADISON – Katharine Lyall’s legacy as president of the University of Wisconsin System can be told, in part, by the numbers. During her 12-plus years as president:

 The system produced more than 300,000 graduates.
 Total annual enrollment increased by 7,000 students, even though the number of faculty fell by 700.
 About 4 million square feet of space was added to the 26 UW System campuses.

As much as the former economics professor might prefer even more metrics, it is difficult to take a full measure of Lyall’s accomplishments as she prepares to step down for a one-year research position in California. That’s because Lyall’s work in stimulating the Wisconsin economy through the reach and scope of the university has yet to pay full dividends.

When that happens, as it surely will in coming years and decades, Wisconsin will recall her tenure as a time when the state laid a strong foundation for its economic future.

“The UW System is a lot more conscious today about contributing to the economic development of the state,” Lyall said during a recent interview in Van Hise Hall, the system’s administrative center. “The UW System is statewide network of resources; a permanent network with deep roots in the communities we serve. It must put those resources to best use.”

That’s a summary of “the Wisconsin Idea,” the 120-year-old notion that the boundaries of the UW extend to the boundaries of the state. Confronted with constricted budgets and legislative skepticism about the UW’s tangible value to the state, Lyall set out to change the system’s image as being distant and aloof to one of being local and engaged.

The creation of the Wisconsin Economic Summit in 2000 by Lyall and then-Regents President Jay Smith positioned the UW as an institution ready to help. Over four years, the summits in Milwaukee focused attention on strategies such as regional economic development, industry “clusters,” tax reform, the value of scientific research to job creation, and the critical need for Wisconsin to compete in a global marketplace. The summits were criticized by some as being too broad or too academic, but many policies being pursued today can be traced to those meetings.

Lyall’s tenure also corresponded with the rise to prominence of research at UW-Madison and other system campuses. Research grants and contracts grew from $292 million in 1991 to more than $770 million in 2004, with much of the increase coming in life sciences research. The explosion in research led to the creation of WiSys, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation that is devoted to patenting and licensing disclosures from UW System campuses.

“We’ve only begun to tap the benefits of our national and international prominence in research,” Lyall said.

The system’s business schools have become more entrepreneurial, with programs at UW-Madison and UW-Whitewater focused on creating business executives who can grow small businesses into big ones. The 13 Small Business Development Centers of the UW-Extension have also become more engaged in dealing with the needs of start-up businesses, adding new courses and refining older programs. There is also less friction among UW System campuses – and more cooperation with other partners, such as the Wisconsin Technical College System.

“We have tried to activate our various resources and generally make the UW System more self-conscious about what it can offer Wisconsin’s economic development,” Lyall said.

The UW System cannot prosper if Wisconsin’s economy suffers. Conversely, the economy won’t grow unless the UW System is healthy and contributing to the effort. Katharine Lyall taught that economics lesson well. Let’s hope Wisconsin policy-makers don’t forget what they’ve learned.

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