The New Badger Partnership and the Wisconsin Idea Partnership Await Legislative Progress as the Debate Between Plans to Provide Autonomy to UW Campuses Continues

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

After several weeks on the backburner, the issue behind breaking the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus off from the state Board of Regents seems prepped to become a hot topic once again. Executives from across the UW system – excluding UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin and the state’s largest institution – urged state legislators to take action regarding potential university autonomy changes for all schools in a letter released earlier this week.

This letter, penned by the primary supporters of the Wisconsin Idea Partnership, presses policymakers to give the 13 four year campuses new flexibility before the new state budget goes into effect. However, legislators will first have to make a decision between two competing plans.

The debate over the governance of Wisconsin’s public universities slowed this month as educators statewide discussed a potential plan to break UW-Madison from the state Board of Regents. The issue relates back to Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to give the state’s flagship institution more autonomy by placing it under the control of a separate board. However, the state’s other universities have cried foul over a plan that they think unfairly benefits the Madison campus and may create duplication and competition between state universities.

Under this plan, known as the New Badger Partnership (NBP), the state’s flagship institution would have increased autonomy through a custom Board of Regents that would oversee policies for the school. This localized Board would help the university make streamlined decisions for issues like hiring and firing staff, setting tuition, and managing capital projects. The split would also help the university cope with a $125m budget reduction in the upcoming year. This plan has earned the support of Chancellor Martin and many of her staffers.

However, the NBP has come under fire from opponents who feel that singling out the Madison campus will mean neglect for the state’s other universities. Others oppose the split because it would give the institution too much freedom and create a sort of privatized campus paid for by public funding. Another factor in the opposition to Martin’s plan is its connection to embattled Governor Scott Walker, which has spurred vitriol that seems related to other political issues rather than to the merits of the proposed split.

Martin has been pitching the NBP since last fall, and her proposal was adopted under Governor Scott Walker’s plan to turn the university into a public authority. This freedom would allow UW-Madison to be more competitive in attracting professors and research projects that would boost the standing – both academically and financially – of the institution. This additional flexibility, spurred by a more responsive board whose only task is to tend to a single entity, would help Wisconsin lure top-flight researchers, improve their public profile, and raise the quality of the product presented to its students.

This program would not only increase policymaking freedom at the Madison campus, but also remove the burden of governing the campus from the Board of Regents. With the largest university in the state removed from the system, decision-making at the remaining campuses would stand to benefit. This could potentially allow for faster and freer rulings for the schools still under the wing of the current Board of Regents.

Its competing plan, the Wisconsin Idea Partnership (WIP), has emerged as an alternative in 2011. The WIP, which was introduced by the UW System and the Board of Regents, suggests that it will increase the flagship campus’s autonomy and grant it the tools it needs to flourish but also additional freedom for all UW campuses governed by the state.

This proposal would maintain the current Board and keep the Madison campus in place under it. However, it would create programs to allow for operational flexibility to a new degree – in short, all campuses would be granted a measure of autonomy but still fall under the same sprawling regulatory committee that has existed for years.

This is the program that executives across the UW system are campaigning for, as shown in May 11’s letter. They highlight the maintenance of a single, unified body for all state universities and declare that every campus is ready for the new level of responsibility that would accompany greater freedom on a school-by-school basis. However, while this plan would bring elements of the autonomy that the Madison campus is seeking to every institution in Wisconsin, it may not provide the needed freedom that large research universities like the ones in Madison or Milwaukee need to compete with public and private schools across the country.

The WIP has garnered a swell of statewide support from chancellors of Wisconsin satellites across the state, but still leaves concerns. One of the main differences between the two plans is control over hiring practices – under the WIP, all university employees will be considered state employees, while under the NBP, university employees in Madison would be considered employees of a public authority. How will this truly affect the quest across all UW schools to hire and retain the best possible professors and staff?

Local campuses oppose a plan that grants flexibility to Madison but not statewide. Meanwhile, authorities in Madison have grown frustrated with how little control they have over their own institution. Recently, officials in Madison have watched similar universities in neighboring states like Michigan and Minnesota thrive in a competitive marketplace thanks to separate executive boards that allow for the state’s largest and smallest institutions to be run differently and operate in their best interests.

The debate is far from over, but one thing is clear – more autonomy and streamlined policymaking are both benefits for the Madison campus. The state’s flagship institution is a public entity through and through, but needs to be given the tools to not only compete for students, but to provide their population with the best experience possible. This applies not only to the school at the state’s capital, but also its rapidly growing neighbor in Milwaukee.

When universities are allowed the freedom to pursue and hire the best possible faculty, the benefits are significant. Not only does the stature of a staff increase a school’s prestige, but also attracts additional funding in the form of grants and donors. More importantly, it improves the quality of education and goes a long way to molding a stronger generation of young adults. As a result, autonomy and the ability for a university to have control over the policies that govern its campus, plays a significant role in building a better Wisconsin.