• August 2, 2014

U. of Wisconsin at Madison's Chancellor Defends Proposed Separation From System

The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus is sticking to her guns.

In what many had predicted would be a contentious meeting of the system's Board of Regents, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin defended her support for a plan that would break the Madison campus away from the rest of the Wisconsin system, creating a new governing board and granting the flagship unique flexibility. The plan is expected to be part of a budget proposal Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, is set to unveil next week.

As currently understood, the proposal "would mean an extraordinary opportunity to combine self-reliance and oversight in a way that permits us to survive, even in the face of deep cuts," Ms. Martin told the regents, who called a special four-hour meeting to discuss the implications of Madison's potential separation.

While details remain murky, Madison officials released documents this week that shed some light on the contours of the plan. By establishing Madison as a "public authority," the campus would have greater flexibility to spend revenues as officials deemed fit. Tuition-setting authority would rest with a new Board of Trustees, just over half of whose members would be appointed by the governor. The proposal would also exempt Madison from regulations on the purchase of goods and services by state agencies, removing "red tape" that Ms. Martin and other chancellors have publicly lamented for years.

'A Crying Shame'

The flexibilities the bill would grant to Madison are similar to those the regents have sought for the entire system, and board members pressed Ms. Martin on Friday about why she would not support such flexibility systemwide rather than as a special arrangement for her campus alone. The chancellor answered as a political realist, saying she was unwilling to sacrifice Madison's shot at a good deal for the sake of solidarity with her colleagues across the state.

"I cannot account for why [the] system's proposals have not gained traction," Ms. Martin said. "I can only tell you that we're in a reality where to forgo an opportunity that does have traction seems to me a crying shame."

The greater flexibilities outlined in the yet-to-be-introduced bill mirror those Ms. Martin has advocated under the umbrella of "The New Badger Partnership," which would give the campus the authority to raise tuition and financial aid.

In her arguments for "distinction" from the Wisconsin system, Ms. Martin has suggested that Madison could be a test case, perhaps ushering in similar flexibilities in the future for the other campuses. But Danae D. Davis, a board member, directly questioned whether Ms. Martin was really concerned about the fate of the state's 12 four-year institutions and 13 community colleges.

"Why do you think this works to the benefit of our other institutions, or do you not care?," Ms. Davis asked, provoking audible groans from the audience.

Many have expressed concern that the system's regional campuses would lose political clout and valuable brand association with Madison if the campus became independent, but Ms. Martin stressed that the flagship would continue to have partnerships with other institutions in the state. Indeed, she said she had resisted a suggestion that Madison's name be changed to "The University of Wisconsin," "precisely because of the importance of sharing the brand."

"Let me repeat: UW Madison is not going anywhere," Ms. Martin said.

An 'Elitist' Institution?

Friday's discussion of the proposed flagship separation came during an intense period in Madison, where protesters have for days flooded the Capitol in opposition to a bill that would strip or severely curtail collective-bargaining rights for most public employees, including university faculty and staff members and graduate students. Ms. Martin said it was unclear whether university employees would still lose bargaining rights if Madison were to become a public authority, but the summary of the plan that the campus released this week suggests Madison employees would have "bargaining rights equivalent to their peers in other state agencies."

Talk of Madison's breaking away from the system has prompted two of the campus's former chancellors to publicly weigh in on the issue. Donna E. Shalala, now president of the University of Miami, wrote an opinion piece for The Wisconsin State Journal calling the proposal "a bold plan, but one whose time has come."

And while he was more ambivalent about independence for Madison, John D. Wiley, Ms. Martin's predecessor, said on Friday that the chancellor could not turn down such an opportunity for flexibility, even if it invited some potentially deleterious consequences.

"I think she probably tried to cut the best deal she could," said Mr. Wiley, now a professor of education, leadership, and policy analysis at Madison.

Having experienced Wisconsin politics firsthand, however, Mr. Wiley said breaking off from the system would only solidify the perception across the state that Madison is an "elitist" institution with little connection to the rural communities that dominate Wisconsin. The campus has benefited politically from its affiliation with regional institutions, and it risks losing that advantage by going it alone, he said.

"I see no reason why the senators and assemblymen from other parts of the state would be particularly sympathetic to anything Madison wants from the Legislature," he said. "You need to be of the people to have legitimacy here."

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