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Chancellor Richard H. Wells

If Wisconsin is truly open for business, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and the rest of the UW System universities, colleges and extension should be more open to local businesses.

This is a call to action we think the Wisconsin Idea Partnership best answers. While preserving our unified UW System, the proposal will also diffuse procurement powers, giving each system campus the key to open the gates of competition to local businesses.

Frustration, Fairness and Frugality

We won’t cut costs by continuing to cut out these community storefronts and companies from contracting with us. Many of them are family-owned operations that have survived just down the street from a four-year university campus for decades. However, many of these businesses have never had a fair shot to compete as our suppliers or service providers. Their frustrations are valid. I personally understand them having been raised in a multigenerational family business located within a town with a public university.

This is not merely a symbolic or sympathetic gesture. Giving our local companies a chance to compete for and garner UW Oshkosh’s business is one of the transformative tools – a Wisconsin Idea Partnership flexibility – that will save at least 5 percent, or $500,000 a year, on supplies, equipment and materials. I strongly believe our local businesses should be able to fairly compete for the approximately $10 million a year UW Oshkosh expends for everyday supplies and materials we need to operate a campus of 13,600 students and 1,700 employees.

Among nation’s most efficient system, universities

System wide, campuses have proven they are ready for this change. By working together for 40 years, the UW System and its campuses have achieved a level of operational efficiency so successful, we boast some of the, if not thee, lowest administrative overhead costs among university systems in the nation. The UW System’s four-year institutions spend 50 percent less (about $1,300 per student) on administrative costs than the national average. From campus to campus, across Wisconsin, our UW System spends a total of $181 million less in administrative costs than the national average. UW Oshkosh’s administrative overhead costs are currently $13 million below the national average for comparable institutions. (See the UW System’s Growth Agenda Accountability Report, 2010-11) That savings is in large part due to the efficiencies of a well-established, united, globally-admired UW System.

More operational flexibility, more savings

The Wisconsin Idea Partnership is all about furthering that shared success in innovative ways. It would help us help Wisconsin untangle the existing counterproductive and overly bureaucratic bidding and contract systems that prevent smart, localized, inclusive procurement decisions at each UW campus. Continuing the frustrating reliance on often-limiting state contract lists that cut out our campus business neighbors from competition will not save our institutions and taxpayers money. It will not jumpstart our economy. It will not help lead Wisconsin out of the Great Recession.

In spreading flexibility, the Wisconsin Idea Partnership will still preserve standards for scrutinizing, vetting and performing due diligence on potential UW System vendors. However, it will remove restrictions long tying the hands of our administrative services departments. They have had little to no ability to consider the many smaller, less-costly yet high-quality vendors across the state, often next door to campus. There are specific reasons this change makes sense:

  • It is best for UW System campuses: They will benefit from a much broader menu of suppliers and service providers in bidding. There are effective, efficient products and services in our UW System institution’s back yards that are, right now, overlooked due to our exclusive contract and bidding practices that favor larger companies able to serve UW System on a wider scale. The Department of Administration does not give universities the necessary flexibility to “go off statewide contract” for procurement of items such as office supplies. The strategy of attempting to purchase a wide array of items centrally makes sense. However, if our campus identifies specific items that are frequently used, we should be able to solicit our own procurement in the interest of saving money, or, at least, we should have the option. There may be local office products suppliers who can deliver products cheaper, faster and at higher quality. Right now, it is next to impossible for our campus to consider these local businesses as an option.
  • It is best for Wisconsin’s business community: Again, the storefronts and manufacturers that comprise the fabric of state commerce find our contract system unwelcoming and daunting. Their frustration is understandable. It is counterproductive to our collective growth. With Wisconsin Idea Partnership flexibilities, these long-standing, hard-working Wisconsin suppliers and companies will benefit from having new, local and regional opportunities to compete legitimately for UW System business. Case in point: One might assume that UW Oshkosh – nestled in the Fox Valley — would have access to many vendors that could supply our paper needs, anything from domestically used tissue paper to copy paper. This is not the case. UW Oshkosh, like other UW System institutions, is mandated to select from a state-approved list of suppliers that, in effect, cuts out many of our local paper manufacturers.
  • It is inherently best for taxpayers: Promoting a new wave of competition for UW System business, campus by campus, means the promise of lower-cost goods and services fueling those UW System campuses. In these challenging economic times, our universities are doing all they can to reduce costs collaboratively and streamline operations for the good of Wisconsin’s budget.  Additionally,  this flexibility will empower local businesses – state taxpayers in their own right – with new, catalytic growth potential. Truly, all boats rise.

Wisconsin is denying itself a piece of prosperity by making it too hard for the Main Street and industrial park neighbors of UW universities to compete for business on campus. We owe it to our state to support the Wisconsin Idea Partnership.

This call to action only furthers UW Oshkosh’s commitment to and collaborations with the business community. Our nationally-regarded College of Business is home of the Small Business Development Center and the Wisconsin Family Business Forum. Our Business Success Center has worked with Internet giants, regional manufacturers and dozens of family businesses to enhance their success, developing innovative partnerships, creating and protecting jobs and delivering valuable, data-driven market forecasts. This says nothing of the thousands of students we graduate every year, infusing our area, regional and state workforces with business leaders, skilled nurses, the nation’s top teachers, artists, scientists and scholars who continue pursuit of master’s degrees and doctorates within and beyond the stellar UW System graduate schools.

A call to action for local business leaders

In the name of continued partnership and our shared economic vitality and prosperity, we urge our local business leaders to call their legislators and the Governor today. Share your personal experience and concrete examples of how the playing field has not been level for your businesses as they seek to do business with our UW System campuses. You are in the best position to tell your story and help UW Oshkosh and other UW institutions deliver the economy-boosting change Wisconsin needs.

Tell our elected leaders to approve the Wisconsin Idea Partnership and keep our heralded UW System united but flexible for Wisconsin’s future.