Despite Setbacks, Plan to Separate Madison Campus from UW System Still in the Works.

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The New Badger Partnership (NBP), a plan to separate the state’s flagship university from the Board of Regents, may not be dead just yet.

Despite a turbulent six months of debate over the role of autonomy on local state campuses, Governor Scott Walker recently announced he will continue to look for ways to increase local authority at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus. UW-Madison is the state’s largest campus, and one of only two public research institutions in the Badger State. Currently, it lies under the control of the state Board of Regents, an entity that mandates policy at all schools in the UW System.

The discussion over the status of Wisconsin’s universities had died down recently, but the topic of a potential split has been a hot button issue throughout 2011. While the schism was viewed favorably by former UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin and other staffers on the main campus, legislators and leaders at the state’s satellite schools panned the plan. This dissent led to the competing proposal; the Wisconsin Idea Partnership (WIP). The WIP would have kept every campus under the control of the Board of Regents, but allowed for increased autonomy across the system.

Little progress was made to advance either reform plan during the state’s recent budget battle. Instead, all general purpose revenue for the universities will be handed to campuses in block grants that will allow for more freedom in spending. Though helpful, this is a far cry from the ability to set tuition, hire professors, and make capital decisions that was included in the NBP.

Now, as the commotion at the Capitol has quelled, Governor Walker has suggested that he’ll continue to push his original plan to free the Madison campus while keeping the rest of the state’s institutions under the control of the Board of Regents.

“I think it is a mistake for people – for regents, for chancellors, for others – to try and stifle Madison,” Walker said in an interview with the La Crosse Tribune. “I think there’s a way you can lift both (UW-Madison and the UW System) up.” The Governor went on to suggest that his administration will continue to support a split that benefits both the state’s largest university and the Board of Regents.

The next step in the discussion isn’t as clear. The tumult of the past six months of debate has had significant effects on the future of higher education reform in Wisconsin. The most blatant obstacle has been Martin’s departure from the UW System.

Martin resigned her post in Madison this June to take over as President of Amherst College in Massachusetts. After siding with the Governor in the battle for campus autonomy, she ultimately left in order to take executive control over a private university with a smaller student base but similar endowment as her previous post. As a result, officials in Madison are working to find her replacement – knowing full well that one of the first issues of any new hire’s tenure will be to address the issue of campus flexibility.

This will be a two-part operation, starting with an interim Chancellor and followed by a permanent hire. The interim leader is already in place, and he’s a familiar face. Chancellor Emeritus David Ward, who oversaw operations at the university from 1993-2000, will take the reins until a suitable candidate is chosen to take his place.

Administrators and alumni of UW-Madison as well as members of the Board of Regents will handle these duties. What the relationship between the two factions will be like after months of contentious debate over Madison’s desire to separate itself from the rest of the system and the Board isn’t yet known.

Speculation suggests that the Board of Regents would be more interested in a candidate who is not only qualified to run a Big Ten university, but also willing to keep the school under the Regents’ control. University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly, who had the responsibility of naming Ward interim Chancellor, has gone on record stating that the next UW-Madison leader will have to mend some of the bridges burned by Martin’s open campaigning for more autonomy in the capital city campus. Whether or not the policy makers in Madison share that sentiment has yet to be seen.

In his early public statements, Ward has been vague about his thoughts regarding the NBP as interim Chancellor, though he did say he was in favor of keeping Madison under the guidance of the UW System.

“I think there is a set of questions of ‘How autonomous should a flagship campus be,’ Ward asked Wednesday after the official announcement of his appointment. “I hope we can have a look at that. Public authority may be only one way of doing that.”

The amount of progress Ward will be able to make on the issue in his short time at the helm is unclear. However, any work he does to re-open the dialogue in Wisconsin over who should control its flagship institution will help dictate the course of the argument as the Chancellor selection process wages on in the background.

Chosen candidates will have their feet held to the fire during a period of legislative turmoil for the university. The proposal of increased freedom at the Madison campus was brought up in part to help address a $250 million shortfall in higher education funding, half of which directly affected the state’s largest institution. The state of Wisconsin entered the 2011-2013 budget cycle facing a $3.1 billion dollar deficit and Governor Walker reduced state spending to fulfill his pledge not to raise taxes to fix the state’s fiscal crisis. The ability to raise tuition and directly oversee human resources – a process that would have allowed the university to attract better professors and the grant money that often accompanies a high-level staff – would have helped the school adjust to the budget reduction.

This upcoming selection process is not the only piece holding back major change at the statewide level. A 17-member state task force was commissioned by the Legislature in the spring to examine the best course of action for higher education in Wisconsin. Their findings won’t be available for several months, with January 1, 2012 serving as the deadline for any recommendations.

The two issues will put a strain on substantial higher education reform in Wisconsin over the next few months. Several players will have different stakes as the game unfolds, including Governor Walker and the Board of Regents. The Regents will be looking to retain control of their most powerful entity. The staff and alumni at the UW-Madison campus will be searching for the best possible way to improve the quality of education created within their institution. The administration of other UW System schools will be looking to make sure they aren’t left out.

There’s a lot at stake, and the debate is still far from resolved. Governor Walker’s recent comments will ensure that the decision behind UW-Madison’s next Chancellor will be a scrutinized one. It’s clear that greater campus control is something that would benefit Wisconsin’s flagship university. What’s less clear is whether or not legislative and UW-System support exists to make this a viable option.