On Tuesday I finally had a chance to take in some of the new Union South in person and it is, as I've been reading for weeks now, quite lovely. The design is sleek and modern without feeling sterile. There are multiple food options encompassing a decent range of health and diet options. Students were seated everywhere, working on laptops or noses buried in books.
It really is a marvelous campus and community resource. The reason I was there, in fact, was to sit in on a panel discussion put together by the TAA about the New Badger Partnership a plan to convert the UW-Madison to a public authority model separate from the current UW System.
Chancellor Biddy Martin has been championing the plan for several months now, and the idea of restructuring the UW-Madison so that it has greater administrative flexibility has been around for decades. But the notion gained considerable traction when Gov. Scott Walker included the plan to spin off the Madison campus in his budget proposal earlier this year.
Under that proposal the UW would gain the freedom to manage itself as a public authority split off from the other UW campuses, in exchange for $125 million less in state funding (it would, instead, receive a set block grant each year from the government).
Since then debate over the NBP has often been heated but also confused. The main problem, the main point of contention among many of its critics, is that there simply has not been enough detailed information released about what exactly the NBP would mean for both the UW and other System campuses statewide.
That confusion makes it difficult for either side to make any solid arguments on their behalf.
It was with that issue in mind that 11 panelists assembled for the discussion on Tuesday, along with probably a few dozen interested audience members. I sat and listened for two hours as other deans, professors, students, TAs, lobbyists and the Chancellor herself all laid out their positions on the matter.
When all was said and done, it was still difficult to cut through the questions and find the concrete below. The following list is what I believe were the most important points made about the plan details:
- The University's current policies ensuring shared governance will not change. Those provisions remain intact and the same in the NBP as what exists now.
- There is no statutory guarantee in the proposed bill regarding financial aid -- there can't be from the state. This would need to be a university commitment-which Martin says already exists in writing in the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates. Martin added the greater freedom gained under the plan would allow the university to use tuition income to support financial aid, too.
- The bill is silent on labor practices. Martin said that much will depend on "what happens in the state of Wisconsin and what's enabled or disabled by the laws that are passed." She said that bargaining agreements could be made separate from the state under the public authority model.
- Martin and School of Education Dean Julie Underwood both made arguments in favor of the NBP specific to competition on the international stage. They claim that the new model would allow the university to manage, without the added bureaucracy of the System and the state, how it awards graduate student stipends, pays professors, administers research programs and generally is able to compete with other top universities worldwide.
- Underwood insisted that the plan would result in "greater independence from the state, not abandonment of it."
On the other side of the argument, UW-Baraboo Dean Thomas Pleger brought up the need for the same administrative and economic flexibilities for the other campuses. "Baraboo has 600 students, 15 professors. At my campus, when a faculty member leaves, basically we lose an entire department. We need the ability to attract and sustain staff, too. How do we get this flexibility without Madison becoming autonomous?"
Executive Director of Communications and External Relations for the University of Wisconsin System David Giroux echoed that sentiment. He suggested that a public authority model for the entire System might be a better fit and wondered if and why that possibility hadn't been entertained.
Most of the dissent over the NBP does seem to be coming from those people affiliated with other UW campuses. The word I heard most used at the discussion was "worry," as in "I'm worried what this will mean for…" and much of that concern seemed centered around the feeling that, in splitting itself off, the UW would simply be leaving the rest of the campuses to rot under state control and decreases in financing.
That's a fair worry, I think. Clearly not enough has been done to address what would actually happen to the other UW campuses if this plan took effect, so how can anyone feel otherwise?
The same worry can rightly be applied to tuition rates. Martin insisted that alumni and other donor gift levels would only go up under the public authority and that that money could then be used to support students who couldn't afford any increases in tuition -- increases that seem likely, since Martin and others have repeatedly noted that the UW currently has one of the lowest price tags among similar schools.
But is relying on hefty giving going to be enough to maintain accessibility to an increasingly economically hard-hit population? I honestly have no idea, and again that's the problem -- not nearly enough seems to have been done to spell out what plans are in place to deal with these issues.
Incoming TAA co-president Adrienne Pagac was the most insistent on this point, noting that the average income for a family of four in Wisconsin is just $80,000 a year, with around $56,000 of that simply going toward living expenses. How would they then be able to afford sending a child to college, she asked, especially if the cost only continues to rise?
This gets at the heart of the issue -- what priority we as a state are willing to give public, higher education. Martin and other proponents have praised Walker as being the first governor in recent memory "willing" to entertain the possibility of making major changes to the UW System. Changes are crucial to keep pace with the modern world, yes, but I really doubt Walker actually has the best interests of the school in mind.
Many lawmakers over the last decade have made it their mission to see the university stripped of as much state funding as possible based largely on ideological bones of contention with the curriculum and the school's audacity to support debate about tougher, more controversial issues (that "liberal bias" the pols are forever deriding).
Instead of seeing the importance of fostering an environment for "sifting and winnowing" for our population and the education of the workforce/electorate, too many legislators simply see the university as a pesky flea to be shaken off their backs.
To Walker, then, I strongly suspect that this is just an opportunity to make deep cuts in state aid to an institution he probably doesn't care for very much in the first place.
I'd rather see an increase in state support for higher education, frankly -- a greater valuing of the crucial role it plays in fostering a healthy society. I'm not sure that spinning off just the flagship campus and letting the state wipe its hands of it will support that goal.
I suspect that something like a public authority model, free from the copious red tape and partisan politicking inevitably involved in state involvement, ultimately would be better for the UW. But might it not be better for the entire System, too? And might there be a way to give greater administrative control to the school without cutting all ties with and accountability to the state/people of Wisconsin?
Giroux mentioned the idea of giving the UW its own governing Board (instead of the one Board of Regents that currently governs the entire System) but still having it remain part of the larger System, such as is currently the model in North Carolina.
Maybe that's not the answer -- one size doesn't fit all -- but it certainly seems like an interesting possibility. Ultimately I can't help but feel like much of the argument in favor of the NBP comes off sounding a lot like just wanting to shake off the other campuses entirely, so it's no wonder some folks are feeling a bit stung.
I think lots of people are in favor of thoughtful restructuring of the UW System to see it run more autonomously and efficiently, able to make its own decisions and set its own terms regarding employee compensation, contracts, and other administrative issues. That makes sense.
A number of things don't make sense, though -- at least not as currently being explained: Why should it only apply to the UW-Madison and not the entire System? How will sufficient funding levels be maintained? How will accessibility and diversity issues be addressed?
I wouldn't call myself totally for or against the NBP -- nor would I go so far as to accuse, as some have, Chancellor Martin of nefarious, underhanded methods and goals. I believe she wants the best for the university -- as do the majority of people involved in this debate. The problem, then, is less intention than it is communication.
This is too important to mess up.