By Erik Christianson
In the Oct. 11, 1971, issue of the WSU System Bulletin (subtitled "A Summary of Activities at the Wisconsin State Universities"), the news from the Eau Claire campus reads as follows: "A change in name and a change in presidents has left the faculty, students and staff wondering, 'What's going to happen next?'"
Plenty, actually. This October marks the 30th anniversary of the merger combining the Wisconsin State Universities and the University of Wisconsin into one, seamless public higher education system.
Birthed through a process discussed for decades, created in part by economics, politics and not without controversy, the University of Wisconsin System has grown into a unified endeavor educating more than 155,000 students on 26 campuses each year, and 1 million citizens annually through UW-Extension.
Moreover, business and community leaders, elected state officials and university administrators say the UW System - with its ability to touch every corner of the state - is the most important single resource available in Wisconsin to propel the Badger state culturally, socially and economically in the 21st Century.
"The UW System has evolved and matured since merger 30 years ago," says UW System President Katharine Lyall, who will host an anniversary dinner Oct. 11 at the Milwaukee Public Museum. "It is efficient, affordable, accessible, and it is benefiting the citizens of Wisconsin in multiple ways - exactly what supporters had in mind when they pushed for a merger of the two state university systems."
That push for merger was not a new thing 30 years ago. The effort to consolidate public education in Wisconsin dates back to the 1890s, says Art Hove, special assistant emeritus at UW-Madison. Hove, who worked for several UW-Madison chancellors dating back to merger, is a widely respected source on Wisconsin higher education history.
The state's normal schools, or teacher-training institutions, began operating in 1866, less than 20 years after the 1848 founding of the University of Wisconsin. As the normal school system expanded, Wisconsin lawmakers were becoming increasingly aware of the competition for state support among the institutions, Hove explains.
"Merger was certainly not a new concept when it was approved in 1971, and as always it was a political concern," he says.
Yet as many historians and other sources point out - in particular UW-Madison's E. David Cronon and John W. Jenkins in their latest volume, "The University of Wisconsin: A History, 1945-1971" - the CCHE ultimately proved ineffective.
Several factors contributed to the CCHE's demise and the ultimate approval of merger.
By the mid-1960s, the Wisconsin State Colleges had evolved into the Wisconsin State Universities, offering degrees in a number of disciplines. Enrollments on the WSU campuses were skyrocketing, as the Baby Boom generation came of age during a time of substantial political and social unrest.
Over at the UW, meanwhile, President Fred Harvey Harrington was determined to expand the university. Enrollments were soaring there as well, and by that time the university included the main campus at Madison, UW-Milwaukee, 10 freshman-sophomore campuses and Extension.
In his desire to build political clout, Harrington then proposed new UW campuses in Green Bay and Kenosha. He advocated funding levels and faculty workloads at UW-Green Bay and UW-
Parkside equivalent to the Madison campus. This upset WSU officials, who felt Green Bay and Parkside would in reality be nearly identical to their institutions with the primary focus of serving undergraduates.
"More than any other development of the 1960s, the two new universities highlighted the failure of CCHE coordination and paved the way for Governor Lucey's state-mandated merger in 1971," write Cronon and Jenkins.
LUCEY ENTERS THE
"It seemed with a change in presidency of the UW and an upcoming change of the head of the state university system, that this would be an ideal time to bring about merger," says Lucey in a recent interview. "If you looked at it from an historical perspective, the missions of the two systems had in fact already merged."
Lucey's position on merger didn't get much attention in 1970. After he defeated Republican candidate Jack Olson and took office in 1971, Lucey raised the issue again - and raised the stakes by linking it to passage of the state budget.
He and other vocal supporters, including future Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, president of WSU-Stevens Point at the time, pointed to several benefits: merger would contain the growing costs of two systems; give order to the increasing higher education demands of the state; control program duplication; and provide for a united voice and the establishment of a single UW System budget in the Legislature.
Not surprisingly, those arguments didn't win the day with Madison faculty and administrators, who by and large opposed merger, fearing it would diminish the great state university. Most WSU faculty and administrators favored merger, believing it would add prestige to their institutions and level the playing field for state funding.
Merger legislation easily passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly. After much maneuvering and lobbying it was approved by a one-vote margin in the Republican- controlled Senate.
Lucey signed Senate Bill 213 into law Oct. 8, 1971. The legislation was published in Chapter 100 of the Laws of 1971 on Oct. 11, taking effect Oct. 12. The UW System was born - although it took until 1974 for implementation legislation to be finalized.
"I had to be pretty heavy handed - no merger, no budget," says Lucey.
NOT WITHOUT CONTROVERSY
But merger has been a boon for Wisconsin higher education - and for Wisconsin. In fact, those who played a key role in merger say the Madison campus would have taken a huge hit politically and financially without it.
David Adamany, Lucey's 1971 campaign issues manager and the person who many consider the chief architect of merger, explains that several years of anti-war violence on the Madison campus in the 1960s fostered enormous hostility among citizens and legislators.
"When Madison opposed merger, the feeling was that we would do something negative to Madison," says Adamany, now president of Temple University, in a recent interview. "Our feeling was that merger would protect Madison in a political environment in which it had been badly weakened."
Adamany, who served as president at Wayne State University before going to Temple, downplays his role in merger. He took a leave from his faculty post at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to join Lucey's 1970 campaign. The two were well acquainted. Adamany worked as Lucey's administrative assistant when Lucey was lieutenant governor. Before that, they knew each other from Lucey's role as head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and Adamany's employment in the state attorney general's office.
Adamany wrote Lucey's 1970 merger speech, which sketched out the framework for the current UW System.
"There is often the misimpression that people in charge of position papers put words in candidates' mouths," says Adamany. "I didn't do that. I did draft the speech on merger. Then Pat looked it over, gave it back and asked me to make changes. The speech represented his ideas; I was the draftsman."
"Without their heroic work, the UW System would not have matured as well or as collaboratively as it has," Lyall says. "We owe a great deal to their foresight and unswerving commitment to core academic values.
Regardless of who takes credit for it - and there were many who played critical roles - the merger created one of the largest and finest university systems in the country.
The UW System has deftly shepherded the development of its institutions and their unique missions, and at the same time it is the most cost-efficient system of higher education in the nation, with administrative costs half the national average.
The UW System also has led the orderly progression of academic programs and is exploring and embracing new ways of teaching and learning, such as distance education and interdisciplinary faculty appointments. Just as important, the System is managing enrollment pressures, especially at Madison, where now more than 20,000 students apply each year for a freshman class of between 5,000-6,000 students.
Most of all, the UW System has matured into a unified entity, focusing its collective wisdom and resources to educate Wisconsin's sons and daughters and help solve the state's current and future challenges.
That is probably the greatest strength of the UW System: its ability to marshal its diverse and widespread forces to address key economic and societal issues. The most recent and best evidence is last year's Wisconsin Economic Summit and this November's Economic Summit II.
Hove says that "using the Summit to determine where Wisconsin is going in the future is a modern-day iteration of the Wisconsin Idea - a concept that has been enormously successful in forging a partnership between the university and the people of the state."
And in the context of Summit II, that partnership must endure for the UW System and Wisconsin to stay strong, says Jay L. Smith, president of the UW System Board of Regents.
"The Wisconsin Idea and the UW System must continue to be cultivated and strengthened for the betterment of Wisconsin and its people," Smith says.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The key challenge in the future, though, will likely be the level of commitment that Wisconsin makes to its public university system. Since merger, state taxpayer support for the university system has dropped from about 50 percent of the UW budget to less than one-third - a downward trend the Board of Regents has turned its attention to in earnest.
"We no longer accept the notion that the university is the one item in the state budget that does not cost money," says Dreyfus in a recent interview. "It actually makes money because the university produces taxpayers, model citizens, and research that could lead to the next big breakthrough, such as stem cell research at UW-Madison. That issue (the amount of state support for the university) will have to get settled out in the next 30 years."
What seems to be settled in most people's minds, however, is that merger resulted in one of the most constructive, long-term developments in the history of Wisconsin public higher education.
"To people of my age, merger is still fresh in our minds, and some continue to view it as highly controversial," says Adamany, who maintains ties to the UW System as an adviser to UW-Madison's La Follette School of Public Affairs and Department of Political Science.
"But when I talk
to younger faculty members, they don't think of it as an issue. So like
many white-hot controversies of the past, for the next generation it is
totally accepted. New administrators and chancellors don't see barriers
or rivalries but are looking for ways to collaborate."
Erik Christianson is news and publications editor at UW System.