Walker’s wake-up call to a Wisconsin institution

Walker’s wake-up call to a Wisconsin institution

Guess the source of this quote: “There is no profession in the world, anywhere in the world, where if you work for seven years you get a lifetime guarantee of a job. Except at a university…If you have tenure at a university, by the time you are 35 you never have to prove yourself again.”

If you guessed those words came from Gov. Scott Walker in his state budget proposal for the University of Wisconsin System, you’re wrong — although Walker is still trying to explain why someone on his staff edited the 110-year-old language behind “The Wisconsin Idea.”

The anti-tenure quote belongs to Jim Rogers, a former college professor and author of “Hot Commodities” and “Adventure Capitalist.” His latest book, “Street Smarts,” describes American higher education as “one of the greatest bubbles of our time.”

Rogers is not alone in claiming that academic tenure, which is a college professor’s contractual right not to be fired without just cause, is driving up the cost of higher education and slowing innovation. It is tied to the notion that professors who meet certain standards early in their careers, such as publishing peer-reviewed papers, must be protected from the political whims of those outside the ivy-covered walls.

While most professors need safeguarding from other ambitious professors, Rogers argues that protecting academic freedom from outsiders isn’t reason enough to keep tenure as a cornerstone of higher education. “Does an accounting professor have to have life tenure to protect his or her political views in the classroom?” he wrote.

Challenging the precepts of higher education is an unspoken reason behind Walker’s budget, in which he proposed nearly $300 million in budget cuts over the next two years while offering the system more flexibility in how it operates.

To be sure, the projected $2 billion deficit in the coming state budget cycle means that the Walker administration is looking for cuts in many agencies and programs. But the proposal is also intended as a wake-up call to an American institution, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, that can be slow to embrace change.

Whether Walker fully gets his way or not, the stage is set for a State Capitol debate over the future of the UW System, from its smallest two-year campus to its flagship research powerhouse in Madison.

At question is whether the $300 million in cuts will be offset by cost savings and other efficiencies generated by looser apron strings tied to state government. The answer for now appears to be “no,” based on the experience in other states.

The UW System budget is roughly $6 billion a year overall for 26 campuses and central administration, with about $1.2 billion of that amount coming from state tax dollars. The rest comes from program revenue (largely tuition), federal grants and contracts and other sources, such as private donors and foundations.

In other words, about one-fifth of the UW System budget comes from state government — along with a disproportionate amount of red tape and expectations.

Among those expectations is that the UW System do a better job of driving economic and workforce development. That includes producing the kind of undergraduate and graduate students the market wants, generating world-class research, working with major state companies and helping to create start-ups. It does all of that, although results don’t always match what’s seen in other states.

Then again, the UW System doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Recent reports suggest that Wisconsin is already low in state support for higher education among the 50 states, percentage growth in higher education spending and state spending on student aid. It’s hard to build a stay-at-home, knowledge economy workforce without investing in young people.

Of course, the UW System has done its part to erode decades of bipartisan credibility. The budget reserve disclosures two years ago caused some lawmakers to question whether the university was hiding money while raising tuition. The political result was a tuition freeze. Former UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin also found herself in a bind a few years back when she proposed autonomy for the UW-Madison — but not the rest of the system, which lobbied against her plan.

This time around, look for legislators across Wisconsin — most of whom have a campus in their home districts or next door — to question whether Walker’s cuts are too deep and too fast.

With new leadership in place on the Board of Regents, in the UW System and at many major campuses, there is receptiveness to reasonable change. After all, many Regents are Walker appointees and the Republican-led Legislature appears to have warmed to new system President Ray Cross.

The coming debate will test whether the Capitol wants to reform higher education in Wisconsin or punish it. The former is an ambitious goal; the latter could harm efforts to build Wisconsin’s knowledge-based economy.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He can be reached by email at communications@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.