University of Wisconsin System to Act on New Flexibility, Plans to Dole Out Power to Local Chancellors

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

A major point of contention this spring was the potential split of the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus from UW System, which is governed by the Board of Regents. The plan would have removed Wisconsin’s largest university from a system of smaller campuses to allow for more autonomy in Madison.

This plan, called the New Badger Partnership (NBP), failed to gain much traction. Instead, a program to provide more autonomy to all campuses – but not as much as Madison’s flagship institution had been seeking – had emerged in its place. Now, the UW System is acting on the power given to it in the 2011-2013 State Budget.

System president Kevin Reilly announced last week that he will introduce some changes to the way that University of Wisconsin schools are run in 2011. Primarily, this would expand the scope of university chancellors and increase the control they have over policies like budgeting, course offerings, and other aspects of local management. This would shift some power away from the Board of Regents, allowing the entity to act in more of a consulting role rather than as a traditional power.

“Our public university system must be even more nimble, innovative, and entrepreneurial,” said Reilly. “The changes I’m proposing will help us take big steps down that path.”

This new policies would empower campuses with more local autonomy but keep the Board as the governing body of the UW System. This differs from the potential NBP legislation, which would have essentially freed the Madison campus from Board oversight while keeping policy in a “business as usual” state for much of the rest of the System. While portions of the NBP’s changes have been expanded to apply statewide, these campuses will not have the potential freedom in respect to spending, human resource policies, and capital expenses.

This decentralization of power will help campuses adjust to a reduced operating budget over the next two years. The UW System is looking at $250 million less in state funding during that span. Additional financial autonomy should help give UW campuses some of the tools they need to offset these losses.

These moves aren’t the only ones Reilly has in store for the state’s universities. Campuses would be given more control over their coursework and degree offerings, allowing for more specialization across the state. Though the Board would still retain ultimate responsibility over major and degree options, local entities would assume control at the ground level, determining what students need in order to earn a degree. This would give campus faculty members more of a say in their yearly offerings, though the Board of Regents would still handle ultimately any large-scale decision.

The pressure of the NBP debate may have helped directly shape some of the other policies that will be introduced Thursday. The UW System will also be embarking on a new era of compliance, led by an examination into how other states utilize their Board of Regents and how this governance affects all schools, large and small. Another proposed change would put UW System auditors into action to ensure that violations are being properly self-reported and tended to at the campus level.

These changes should increase the local power at all of Wisconsin’s campuses, but ultimately won’t give the state’s largest institution the autonomy that it had been seeking under former Chancellor Biddy Martin. The Madison campus, one of only two public research institutions in the state, will still work closely with the Board of Regents, but under fewer restrictions than in previous years. Whether or not this can help the university compete in the hiring realm for high-level staff against institutions like the Universities of Michigan and Illinois won’t be known for some time.

Reilly’s work will help Wisconsin’s public universities better shape the unique offerings of each location, but can only rise the tide of public higher education if these schools dedicate themselves to local oversight. While the tools to improve governance at all schools are included in his policy package, it may not be enough for campuses like Madison and Milwaukee. As a result, this half-measure of local autonomy may end up only serving the state’s smaller universities – and leaving two of the most important educational strongholds in Wisconsin a step behind competing states.