By Tom Still

MADISON – More than a generation ago, a mega-merger of higher education institutions created the University of Wisconsin System. It hasn’t always been a perfect marriage, insist those who pine for days gone by, but the 1971 merger forced greater cooperation and prompted wiser use of Wisconsin’s public resources.

The time has come for the UW System to once again refine its structure, this time with 21st century realities in mind. Facing a state budget crunch, rising tuition costs and changing workforce development demands, the UW System won’t be able to stand pat for long. Its leaders know that. The only question is what form the “new” UW System will take.

One idea has come from state Rep. Rob Kreibich, R-Eau Claire, the chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. He has proposed merging the 13 two-year campuses with the 13 four-year campuses, essentially pairing them to increase regional cooperation while cutting administrative overhead. Other legislators, Democrat and Republican, have said Kreibich’s idea may be worth a look. System administrators also said they’re happy to consider all ideas to boost efficiency, and they’re already working on their own comprehensive plan.

It’s not clear whether Kreibich’s plan would actually save that much money (even a “satellite” campus needs someone to run things), but it has sparked a debate about how the UW System should be organized for the future.

Consider the UW-Milwaukee and the two-year centers within a short drive of its campus on the city’s northeast side. The UW-Milwaukee would be hard-pressed to expand on its existing campus, but could offer more four-year courses at UW-Waukesha or UW-Washington County. The benefits to the regional economy should be obvious, especially in research ectors where the UW-Milwaukee is poised to work with Wisconsin’s private business clusters.

In Waukesha County, for example, the technical college campus has been a leader in working with Wisconsin’s printing industry. Wouldn’t the power of a four-year doctoral campus in the neighborhood help that effort?

The two-year campuses offer access to higher education for students who might otherwise not attend, so any plan to merge them into the four-year campuses needs closer inspection. At the same time, critics have long wondered why Wisconsin needs 13 two-year UW campuses and 16 two-year technical college districts – especially when the technical college districts are, by mission, closely aligned with meeting the workforce needs of Wisconsin employers.

If the two-year campuses can serve a dual function – access for students on their way up, and satellites for larger campuses with specific economic expertise – questions about usefulness might disappear.

UW System President Kevin Reilly appears to already be thinking along those lines. Reilly, a former chancellor of the UW Extension, has talked about combining the administration of the 13 two-year campuses with UW Extension. That’s essentially how it was done before the 1971 UW System merger, with combined the University of Wisconsin (with four major campuses at Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Parkside, along with University Extension) with the 11 state universities.

Industry leaders such as John Torinus, chief executive officer of West Bend’s Serigraph Co., have long advocated closer ties between the UW System and the state’s 11 recognized business “clusters,” which include printing, papermaking, tourism, agriculture, biotechnology, forest products and more. Growth of the clusters could be stimulated by a refined UW System structure.

Reilly, the UW Board of Regents and other UW leaders will embrace change. In fact, they may lead the charge to demonstrate to Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature that the UW System is in tune with the times. Whether that change includes a merger of the two-year and four-year campuses or other ideas, the UW System will adapt. It always has.

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