By Tom Still 


Unhappy state legislators clamoring for more deliberate strategies tied to economic growth… 


Students and parents complaining about soaring tuition bills… 


Conflicts with faculty and staff over pay, governance and innovation in education… 


Does that sound a bit like the challenges facing the University of Wisconsin System these days? It certainly does, but it’s not a phenomenon limited to the Badger state. The same problems and trends are confronting other public universities across the country. 


That was evident at the annual conference of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, held recently in Washington, D.C. This 126-year-old network of university chancellors, presidents and other public university leaders is a forum for examining issues facing higher education and the broader public interest. 


Among items high on the APLU list: Increasing the number of degree holders of all ages, understanding and controlling higher education costs, expanding online education and improving how universities can affect economic growth. 


Two speakers embodied the efforts of university leaders who are trying to manage those trends and more: Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor who is now president of Purdue University, and Nancy Zimpher, the former UW-Milwaukee chancellor who is now running the State University of New York system. 


Inside a year, Daniels shook up his Big Ten campus by freezing tuition for two years and instituting changes designed to make the campus more responsive to the state economy. Instead of asking families to adjust their budgets to the needs of Purdue, Daniels told an audience of nearly 1,000 university leaders, he asked Purdue to adjust its budget to the needs of families and students. 


Even with a $40 million cut in expected tuition revenues, Daniels said, he’s expecting the campus to maintain academic and research quality, improve speed to graduation and do more to ensure accountability. 


“We have tried to take down every barrier we could find, save those that protect intellectual integrity,” he said.

But Daniels, a former president of Eli Lilly’s North American operations, also sent shivers through the crowd when he added:  “The protections we have extended to academic freedom have led to rigidity like you see nowhere else.” Tenure reform, anyone?  

Zimpher was an energetic leader for UW-Milwaukee during her five-year tenure in Wisconsin, and she’s now exuding the same kind of enthusiasm at the helm of SUNY, a massive system with 64 campuses, about 90,000 faculty and staff, and more than 460,000 students. 

In her address to APLU, Zimpher challenged her colleagues to embrace change and create “a culture of discipline” in higher education that will make it more nimble, efficient and transparent. 

She asked: “If we are the most pre-imminent higher education system in the world, why is America still facing so many daunting problems?” 


Zimpher has helped SUNY embrace online education, seamless transfer of credits and economic growth through the establishment of tax-free zones near campuses for companies that provide net new jobs. That latter idea was eventually championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and is now law. 


In a follow-up interview, Zimpher described her first three months at SUNY in the summer of 2009 as a non-stop road trip to determine what, if anything, glued the SUNY system together. Her conclusion: Each campus was an integral part of the community in which it existed, often contributing at different levels that matter on both sides of the equation. 


For Zimpher, that conclusion meant finding a way to harness the economic power of SUNY’s campuses, which are often dominant institutions in their regions – especially outside New York City. That was done through a campus-by-campus process that led to “The Power of SUNY,” which she described as an adaptable framework for “enhancing the quality of life for every New Yorker.” 


With UW System President Kevin Reilly retiring this month, the search for a successor will likely focus on finding a leader who will help the diverse UW System continue to meet 21st century challenges. The good news: Wisconsin is not alone in adapting to an evolving higher education landscape.  As lawmakers and university leaders look for answers, they may find them in solutions being explored by others across the country.