How to harness the power of UW System for economic growth

How to harness the power of UW System for economic growth

A core reason why lawmakers have so far softened budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin System is their realization it’s a statewide economic engine – with the potential to produce even more regional horsepower.

That message has come through in many ways, from independent economic studies to hands-on examples of how the UW System is a catalyst for job creation and growth.

Consider the recent “Posters in the Rotunda” exhibit in the Capitol, which showcased undergraduate research projects from 19 of the UW System’s 26 four-year and two-year campuses. Lawmakers who strolled through the 12th annual event could sense they were mingling with next-generation entrepreneurs, technicians and scientists who will prove essential to Wisconsin’s workforce.

The reinvigorated mission of the WiSys Technology Foundation, which handles invention disclosures for all UW campuses outside Madison and Milwaukee, is another example of economic penetration. With 36 disclosures by faculty and students so far this year, WiSys inventors have exceeded the annual totals for 2014 and 2013, and will likely soon surpass the record (40 disclosures) set in 2012. The success is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is a growing sense that campuses outside Madison and Milwaukee have much to offer in terms of innovation.

None of this detracts from the economic contributions of the UW-Madison and the UW-Milwaukee, which continue to churn out disclosures, patent, licenses and young companies. Eight of the 13 finalists in this year’s Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which is produced by the bipartisan Wisconsin Technology Council, were rooted in ideas born on those campuses or others in the UW System. That included three of four category winners and the grand prize winner, bluDiagnostics of Madison.

The message has not been lost on Wisconsin’s 132 legislators, who represent geographic regions where a UW campus is often one of the largest employers – and one of the largest sources of talent for local businesses.

Deepening the UW System’s ability to drive the Wisconsin economy was the topic of a report released June 1 by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank based in Milwaukee. The report’s findings stressed the need for each of the system’s campuses to become more entrepreneurial and to better align respective missions to local economies.

While many of the report’s recommendations involved specific governance changes, which may or may not be welcomed by the Legislature and the UW Board of Regents, others drilled down into direct economic activity. They included:

  • Give campuses more latitude to create and expand popular programs that engage students and professors in technology transfer and “second-stage” economic development.
  • Expand criteria for granting tenure to include, where appropriate, technology transfer and business missions.
  • Protect basic research, which is foundational to more specific research that can be applied to solving market problems.
  • Give campuses more latitude to attract private investment and to convince local businesses of the potential return on such investments.
  • Set objective measurements for the economic impact of each campus and to hold chancellors accountable for those results.
  • Invest in regional communications efforts to better tell the economic story to local business leaders, taxpayers and others.

“Economic development is inherently a local and regional challenge,” wrote co-authors Charles Sorensen, the long-time chancellor of UW-Stout, and Michael Flaherty. “Chancellors know their facilities’ strengths; they know their regions’ businesses and industries; they know their regions’ economic development needs… They should be given the latitude to function more as chief executive officers and less like provosts.”

Wisconsin lawmakers have already demonstrated reluctance to relinquish control over the UW System, which is why Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to create a separate authority model has been moved to the back burner. There should be little question, however, that individual campuses working with partners – business, technical colleges and others – can contribute mightily to the Wisconsin’s economy.

In truth, there is no single Wisconsin economy. The state is comprised of indigenous economies that range from the Chicago watershed of southeast Wisconsin to the Twin Cities umbrella of western Wisconsin and many more in between. Helping UW System campuses contribute in their distinct backyards is a way to push all of those economies ahead.
Recent articles by Tom Still

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Still is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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.