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Chancellor Richard Wells

Leaders around Wisconsin have had little time to react to the historically significant proposal detaching our flagship University of Wisconsin Madison from the UW System. As you know, the idea has garnered support and opposition. I oppose it.

Let me put my reasoning and objection in metaphorical, but also plain terms: There is no flagship without a fleet.

True, a flagship may be biggest in the armada. It may boast the most prestigious or historic service record. It may even have meritoriously defended the smaller ships that sail with it. But the real reason the flagship carries the flag is because the fleet has bestowed it that honor.

The fleet and the flagship have traveled alongside mutually sustaining and defending each other. There is a proud symbiosis in play among all the ships as they sail on together, aiming to achieve the Wisconsin Idea. Should the flagship break away, or should the fleet abandon its leader, the mission of effectively and efficiently serving the knowledge needs of all the citizens of the state is lost.

That concern is echoed by Aims C. McGuinness, a national higher education authority, in a recent article titled “Flexibility — But for (and From) Whom?” (Inside Higher Education, Feb. 28, 2011). The full article is worth careful consideration.

“It really is important for a state to have a diversified system of higher education,” McGuinness said. But “maintaining support for the diversity of missions in a state really depends on the various sectors being willing to play together in some coherent way. The trouble is, right now, there is less attention to the public needs in a state than at virtually any time I’ve seen. Presidents, especially at a lot of land-grant and research universities, really care zero about that. They’re hired to advance their institutions, and that comes first.”

I think using the “flagship and fleet” metaphor best frames my opposition to UW Madison’s “sailing away” from our UW System’s armada of excellence.

In my opinion, UW Madison is far and away the best example in the nation of an authentic flagship university that has earned the right to carry our flag. Truthfully, Wisconsin has never known the alternative — the self-proclaimed elitist flagship university, one that, on its own, assumes the lead and carries its pennant based on “admissions exclusivity” or a “research-centered” prestige. Its rank and superiority are self-designated, never born out of a long-standing respect from, consensus by and, most importantly, symbiosis with its fleet.

Wisconsin has it right. It has, for decades, been cited as a model of flagship university authenticity. The System-wide respect for UW Madison was overwhelmingly evident during last week’s UW System Board of Regents meeting. I believe that while UW Madison brings luster to all of our system institutions, those institutions are a major reason why UW Madison is so highly regarded:

  • We are one of UW Madison’s best cheerleaders, helping regionally, nationally and internationally to laud and amplify the excellence at the flagship.
  • They are among if not the biggest employer of UW Madison’s advanced degree graduates. This is just one more source of our homegrown, sustainable prosperity.
  • Conversely, they are also one of the biggest sources of graduate students for UW Madison.

Again, our authentic flagship university is the premier State Research University in our system. It is therefore given the honor to carry the flag. In our type of system, differences of kind between higher educational institutions are highly regarded but never ranked.

I will now do my best to share frank but civil remarks regarding the proposal to remove UW Madison from the UW System.  As I said last week before the Board of Regents, I promise not to be “Wisconsin Nice” for the sake of being nice. That would not be civil. On the other hand, I pledge to be guided by the civility principal of LARA (Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Add) to help me avoid being “New York Nasty.”

If UW Madison “sails away,” it must give up our fleet’s flag because it will no longer be the lead ship. In fact, it will become its UW System peers’ toughest competitor as the State of Wisconsin moves from its internationally regarded “professional-collegial system” of higher education to a highly-criticized “political system” characterized by unnecessary competition, divisiveness, and back-room deals.

Here is the irony, if not the tragedy: While many states are doing their best to emulate our System, Wisconsin is considering a proposal to break up our System. There are, of course, fiscal ramifications, too. Madison currently receives 38 percent of our state General Purpose Revenue (GPR) funding to serve 23 percent of the students. It is not unreasonable to think this gap will widen. In fact, I would not be surprised if UW Madison were to receive fifty percent of GPR funding within six years. Moreover, a larger share of Northeast Wisconsin tax revenue will go to support UW Madison at the expense of UW Oshkosh, UW Green Bay and the New North’s UW Colleges.

The fiscal waters get even choppier when considering the impact this historic change could have on tuition. Because a detached UW Madison will be allowed to raise tuition as it sees fit, huge pressure will be placed on the abandoned fleet to remain “affordable.”  Significantly less state funding and tuition for the fleet means access with diminished quality for the 130,000 students —the 77 percent majority— who call, or will call, the fleet schools their educational homes. It is neither overdramatic nor an exaggeration to say that this split will contribute to socioeconomic and political inequality, separate, unequal, and inaccessible educational experience and to a waning of the Wisconsin middle class.

The fleet needs flexibility, not fracture, to stay true to course. For example, the flexibilities that have been requested would give UW Oshkosh the capability to meet budgetary shortfalls and/or provide approximately 5,000 more classroom seats for every $1 million saved.

Make no mistake about it, if all UW Colleges and Universities can manage their energy production/consumption and fringe benefits, and control their budgets, they will be able to more efficiently and effectively save and utilize tens of millions of dollars. Furthermore, they will be better positioned to pursue private giving for student scholarships and high-impact educational excellence for students and to meet the need for broadly educated and technically skilled global citizens to recharge and retool our economy and communities.

President Reilly and the Regents requested system-wide Public Authority Status and all of the associated leadership and management flexibilities that are needed to sustain that change within all of our institutions. (Please see their letter of February 15, 2011.) I believe we should all strongly support that request.

In conclusion, this is not the time to abandon ship nor for the flagship to abandon the fleet that has kept it steaming Forward for generations.