Doubts mark plan to split off Madison

Known throughout the U.S. for educational excellence, high-level research, a liberal atmosphere and avid support for its athletic teams, UW-Madison could soon undergo changes that have residents throughout the Badger State questioning the future ...

Known throughout the U.S. for educational excellence, high-level research, a liberal atmosphere and avid support for its athletic teams, UW-Madison could soon undergo changes that have residents throughout the Badger State questioning the future of Wisconsin's flagship university.

Among the provisions of Gov. Scott Walker's controversial 2011-13 state budget he unveiled Tuesday is a measure that would allow UW-Madison to withdraw its membership in the UW System, which comprises the state's 26 public universities and colleges.

As part of the proposal, the university would receive $125 million less annually in state funding. In return, university administrators would have greater say in decision-making, which Chancellor Biddy Martin has said is necessary for the institution to more effectively serve students amid continued fiscal challenges, prompted in large part by state aid not keeping pace with rising costs.

The governor's proposal also sets the stage for UW-Milwaukee to begin the process to withdraw from the system. It does not allow the state's other public universities to do so.

Instead of being managed by the UW Board of Regents, like other UW System schools, UW-Madison would be overseen by a 21-member board. The governor would appoint 11 of those members, and UW-Madison officials would name 10.


Conflicting opinions

Walker, Martin and other backers of the proposal say the measure would allow UW-Madison to build on its prestigious academic reputation and continue as one of the nation's premier public universities.

Others worry the proposal could significantly change the nature and mission of UW-Madison. Allowing Walker and future governors to appoint a majority of the board could further politicize UW-Madison, potentially foisting major changes upon the university every time a new governor is elected, they say.

The change could be especially significant at UW-Madison, given its long-held reputation as a liberal bastion.

"This has the potential for huge change at UW-Madison," said UW Board of Regents member and Eau Claire attorney Ed Manydeeds, a UW-Madison Law School graduate. "Look at some of the things UW-Madison is known for and ask how that could change with a Republican governor appointing who he wants to the board that oversees the university."

Among the most significant changes could be the university's stem cell research program. Scientists from around the world look to UW-Madison as a leader in that field. Many conservatives are strongly opposed to that research.

"You have to ask whether stem cell research would continue with Walker as governor," Manydeeds said.

Beverly Wickstrom, an Eau Claire attorney and UW-Madison graduate, agrees the proposal could curtail the kinds of research UW-Madison faculty conduct.


"Of course you worry about stem cell research, but there are other programs, such as work to design vehicles that are more energy efficient, that may also be halted with a more conservative approach," she said. "I fear those types of things will go by the wayside" if Walker's proposal is enacted.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich acknowledged the withdrawal of UW-Madison from the system could well lead to changes at the university. But the current system that includes oversight from a Board of Regents appointed with gubernatorial oversight isn't free of politics, he said.

"We've got a lot of oversight within the system already," he said.

Flexibility request

Martin and other state university chancellors have pushed for more freedom from system regulations they say sometimes lead to inefficiencies that hinder universities' ability to educate students. They point to the lengthy approval process for building projects as an example of how current regulations slow progress at their schools.

"There are a lot of things we could do better locally, if we had the freedom to do so," said Charles Sorensen, chancellor of UW-Stout in Menomonie.

Levin-Stankevich agrees and said he's not sure removing UW-Madison from the system would adversely impact UW-Eau Claire.

"We still have a lot of questions about this," he said. "Hopefully the academic relationships and collaborations we have with UW-Madison would remain (if UW-Madison leaves the system)."


Sorensen said he believes UW-Stout would continue to achieve its mission, regardless of UW-Madison membership's in the system.

"We and the other universities have pretty strong brands of our own," he said.

Ultimately, Sorensen and Levin-Stankevich hope the added flexibility that would be granted to UW-Madison filters down to the universities they oversee.

"My concern is if I end up in the existing system with no more flexibility to respond to these budget cuts that I have now," Levin-Stankevich said.

Change debated

The possible removal of UW-Madison from the organization that oversees the state's public universities has prompted lots of debate and is certain to spur more. It remains uncertain whether it will make it through the budget process unchanged, although it appears there may be enough Republican votes in the Legislature to pass the measure.

Democrats in the state Legislature have spoken against Walker's proposal, saying UW-Madison does extremely well in the current system.

Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, said he has talked to chancellors at other four-year UW schools, and they don't like the proposal.


"What I'm concerned about is that we'll end up with one really good flagship institution, and then all the other institutions will really suffer and become second-rate institutions, as has happened in some other states," Danou said.

Some Republican legislators have endorsed the idea, but others have expressed concern. State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said she backs granting system schools added flexibility to act more efficiently, but she is opposed to the removal of UW-Madison from the system.

"We need greater flexibility and accountability at our universities, but I have great reservations about UW-Madison pulling out," Harsdorf said. "I'm not convinced of the need to do that."

Manydeeds said he is troubled by the inclusion of UW-Madison leaving the system in Walker's budget bill. He believes it should be debated as a separate bill, because of the significance of the proposal. He also worries the move would boost tuition at Wisconsin's most populous university, potentially cutting off admission to many Wisconsin residents. Estimates project tuition would increase about 10 percent each of the first two years after the measure is approved.

"If this happens, it is going to mean real changes that I don't think will be good for Wisconsin," he said.

Emerson can be reached at 715-830-5911, 800-236-7077 or .

UW System

The UW System was formed in 1971 with the merger of the state's two public university systems. The system includes the nine former Wisconsin State University campuses -- Eau Claire, La Crosse Oshkosh, Platteville, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout (in Menomonie), Superior and Whitewater -- and the four former University of Wisconsin campuses -- Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee and Parkside (in Kenosha County).


The 13 two-year public colleges in the state also are part of the system, as is the UW-Extension statewide outreach and continuing education service.

The UW System has an overall annual budget of $4.75 billion and receives $1.1 billion in state funding each year. It educates almost 182,000 students annually and employs more than 32,000 faculty and staff statewide.

UW-Madison, the flagship campus of the system, has by far the largest enrollment, with more than 41,000 students.

Source: UW System website ( )

Copyright (c) 2011, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

What To Read Next
Get Local