As I've been discussing recently, Gov. Walker's budget contains some radical changes for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It would separate the Madison campus from the rest of the UW System, making it a public authority, meaning it would operate more independently of the state, similar to the UW Hospitals and Clinics.
Chancellor Biddy Martin and others have been asking for these changes, which they say will allow them to operate more flexibly and be competitive with other top universities. They tend to frame the change as appropriate in the context of dwindling state support. The question I have repeatedly asked is this: How will the public authority model bring in more money for UW?
Martin has been hesitant to be specific, but she says here that the changes will spur more giving from donors and that the university's independence from state regulations will allow it to spend its money more effectively.
Mike Knetter, CEO of the University of Wisconsin Foundation, the UW's fundraising arm, outlined specific reasons why the public authority will empower the state's flagship campus:
[A]t present, the normal state agency human resource policies determine the amount of funds that are allowed to be allocated in our merit pay plan, regardless of whether the funds are coming from tax dollars or private gifts. For an organization where state tax dollars account for only about 19% of annual revenue, it is a real handicap when the merit pool is determined solely by state regulation. Having the opportunity to use designated private gifts to recruit and retain our most outstanding faculty is very important to a number of our alumni and donors.
The disparity in pay between UW professors and those at other top state schools has been a topic of conversation in Madison since long before I started college in 2006. It, along with UW being the last Big 10 school to not offer domestic partnership benefits, was often cited as a reason why top liberal arts faculty were leaving for jobs at other universities.
In the short-term, there is no way UW can win by appealing for more money from the GOP legislature. Whether or not Walker proposed a public authority model, he is going to target UW for cuts. In the long-term, it is probably not beneficial for an economic entity as important to the state as UW to be subject to the political uncertainty that the rest of state agencies face.
The counter-point: Why should any basic public service be subject to political uncertainty? It's one of the points that underpins the demonstrations against the governor now.
But there's a fundamental difference between maintaining the delivery of decent services, such as public safety and infrastructure, and developing a phenomenal campus that can drive the state's economy and create thousands of jobs. There are limits (although those limits are subject to ferocious debate) to our ambitions for most public services. There should be no limits to our ambitions for UW. We should not consider ourselves incapable of attracting faculty that are getting offers from Berkeley, Michigan or Harvard.
In addition, most of our public services don't compete with public services in other states to the extent that UW competes with other universities.
In future posts I will delve more into this issue, including the arguments made by opponents of the public authority model.