By Tom Still

As state budget writers wrap up their draft of a two-year spending plan to be unveiled early next year, the University of Wisconsin System will once again face stiff competition for public dollars.

The decline in state support for the UW System isn’t simply about politics. The budget slide began under former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and continued under Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Rather, it is consistent with a nationwide trend that began in the early 2000s.

Higher education competes with other major programs in every state, Wisconsin included. Those include Medicaid, which commands 19% of tax-financed spending in the typical state budget; corrections, which has surpassed higher education spending in about a dozen states; primary and secondary education; and infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. Read the full Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article here.

“Overall, states have been cutting their support for higher education for well over a decade,” the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported as part of its “Lincoln Project” on the future of public research universities. “The decline in support in part reflects difficult choices states have made in response to mandatory spending programs like Medicaid…”

The decline in state support has been steeper in Wisconsin than nationally, however, as measured by several indicators. One such metric is state support per full-time-equivalent student, which now ranks 10th-lowest among the 50 states. Another is spending on research and development, which has tumbled of late at UW-Madison and is threatened on other campuses such as UW-Milwaukee.

The 2017-’19 budget will soon hit Walker’s desk for a January review before heading to the Legislature for debate and passage by summer. Here are some ways state government can stop the bleeding — as well as idea for how the UW System can help itself.

What the state can do:

  • Put money into talent attraction and retention programs where the competition for faculty is most intense. Administrators have done pretty well so far in retaining R&D stars, but there aren’t any more piggy banks to break. Policymakers must remember: When a faculty member leaves, so does the research grant itself and all the direct and indirect jobs that go with it.
  • Remove strings that make it harder for the UW System to manage its own affairs. It’s one thing for the state to fund only 20% of the cost of its higher education system and cap tuition; it’s quite another for the state to exercise disproportionate control over personnel, purchasing and capital project decisions.
  • Appoint a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel to help plot a course for the future of higher education, as recommended by the Wisconsin Technology Council earlier this year. Most problems confronting higher education in Wisconsin won’t be solved in a single budget cycle. Those issues include questions about governance, sustainable student tuition and aid policies and the coming demographic crunch, which may dictate how many campuses and systems survive over time.

What the UW System can do:

  • Engage with business in meaningful ways that range from research to job fairs, and from internships to technical advice and consulting. One reason the UW-Madison slipped a notch in national rankings for R&D spending is a mediocre record in business research partnerships.
  • Make it clear that all UW campuses can and do engage locally, not just the Big Two in Madison and Milwaukee. Lawmakers need to see the economic value campuses provide, especially to local businesses. Keep those ivory tower drawbridges down.
  • Combat the notion that student debt is a major problem for most students. A large number of public and private college students in Wisconsin graduate with no debt at all. For those who graduate with debt, it’s typically paid off within five years assuming they find a good job. College costs in Wisconsin remain a bargain for most students, especially compared to those in other states. There’s a reason fly-by-night colleges are shutting down: Many are charging students a lot of money without creating value, which leads to debt.
  • Stop doing stupid stuff. Defenders of academic freedom can fall back on the First Amendment if they wish, but it’s not smart politics to title a class “The Problem of Whiteness” and for the professor to tweet messages that seem to condone violence. The cultural divide between academia and taxpayers is wide enough; the tradition of academic freedom need not drive the wedge deeper.

Public universities serve the interests of the nation and Wisconsin. They play a major role in economic development, yield discoveries and knowledge that benefits society, produce graduates who can adapt and who know how to learn, and add to the cultural fabric of their communities and beyond. Investing in them makes sense, even in a competitive state budget.