Wisconsin Idea Partnership

Guest Editorial

Guest editorial by James W. Perry and James F. Veninga:

Separating UW-Madison from the UW System is a Bad Idea

Along with others, former Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly and current University of Wisconsin Regent Tom Loftus has asked Chancellor Biddy Martin to withdraw her support for the proposal to separate UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System. 

This is indeed a bad idea, and we agree with the major arguments made by Regent Loftus. But as former leaders of two local UW Colleges campuses, we are compelled to point out the significant impact separation would have on our local students.

  A significant percentage of our students transfer to UW-Madison to complete bachelor’s degrees. More than 13,000 students start at UW Colleges because we are the most affordable point of access to the UW. Most come from homes of very modest financial means. Many are the first in their families to attend college.

In order to maintain the current level of service we will see double-digit tuition increases at UW- Madison, as much as 26% over the next two years.  The prospect of our students having to pay nearly $11,500 in tuition alone to attend an independent UW-Madison will derail the dream of completing a B.A. or B.S. degree from our state’s flagship campus. UW-Madison will become an elite institution that only the rich can afford.

We agree with Regent Loftus about other reasons why spinning off UW-Madison is a bad for our state:

  • Wrapping this serious policy issue into the Governor’s budget bill would be a terrible mistake. Budget bills are partisan bills, and to move forward with a major higher education policy decision in a partisan manner only sets the stage for ongoing conflict.

  • Handling this policy question in this manner neglects a review of how the UW evolved into the System that it is today—one of the strongest in the nation—and fails to provide a forum for individuals to express their views.

  • We will see a return to the tribalism of the past, with UW institutions competing among themselves for scarce public dollars.

  • Spinning off UW-Madison will break the bond that the citizens of Wisconsin have had with UW Madison since it is likely that the new Board of Regents for UW-Madison would be exempt from Senate confirmation.

To these compelling reasons for rejecting this proposal, we would add that there will be significant additional costs due to duplicative administrative systems. It is also possible, down the road, that there may be no “System” at all—only separate educational institutions, each with its own governing board and administrative structure. That is, the “tribalism” that Loftus notes would also lead to increased costs and not just a fighting over limited public resources.

We are astounded that Chancellor Martin apparently moved forward with this idea in discussions with Governor Walker without first vetting the idea with UW System President Kevin Reilly and the Board of Regents.  A lone ranger approach to issues of higher education does not work, and this specific proposal works against the best interests of the citizens of Wisconsin. We need a unified system of higher education, with policy matters handled in a deliberative, open, and collaborative way.

—James W. Perry and James F. Veninga are former Campus Deans at UW-Fox Valley (1993-2011) and UW-Marathon County (2000-2007), respectively.