MADISON –The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents convened in a special session Friday to discuss for the first time a new proposal that could provide UW-Madison with “public authority” status.

The proposed separation of UW-Madison from the UW System is expected to be included as part of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011-13 budget plan to be unveiled on March 1.

This is a huge step, Regent President Chuck Pruitt told the Board, and it has a vast range of implications. “It deserves an open, transparent, in-depth conversation. It affects this state’s public university system, so it should be discussed and determined publicly.”

Pruitt reiterated that Regents are charged with looking after all of the UW System – and its Systemwide 182,000 students and 30,000 faculty and staff members – not just the UW-Madison.

UW System President Kevin P. Reilly told Regents that the Governor had indicated he is willing to listen and to work with the university on amending the proposed legislation to benefit all UW institutions.

“Our primary goals are: (1) to get the flexibilities we need to help ensure the quality of our institutions for the future, and their continued accessibility and affordability to Wisconsin students; and (2) to avoid wasteful and damaging duplication and competition among the institutions, costs of which would be passed along to our students, families, and Wisconsin taxpayers,” Reilly said.

UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin told the Board that looming budget cuts, after years of budget cuts, on top of employee furloughs and pay reductions, compelled UW-Madison to advocate for its New Badger Partnership proposal.

“The hand we’re dealt has no money in it, so we must become more self-reliant,” Martin said. “We must do more to help ourselves so we can continue to help the public. The UW-Madison is capable, perhaps uniquely, but not exclusively so, of relying on our own capacities and resources. But we can only rely on our own resources and maximize them if we can cut through layers of red tape that separate our goals and plans from our ability to execute them.”

She noted that it seems the Governor has accepted the merits of that argument about universities.

Martin said they were “somewhat stunned,” however, at the Governor’s proposal to give the university public authority, saying it was just one of several alternatives considered.

She said that while she regrets how the evolution of the Partnership and its implications have been communicated, “If it does comply with the principles and values that our constituencies on campus have articulated, it would an extraordinary opportunity to combine self-reliance with oversight in a way that permits us to survive, even in the face of deep cuts.”

She added that it also would be “an opportunity for Madison to serve as a test case, a laboratory, a first step that could be extended either during legislative budget deliberations to other institutions, or, as the Governor suggested, in future sessions.”

She also said, “delaying, tabling, or opposing the Governor’s proposal will put us all in the position of taking deep cuts with no flexibility in the way we deal with them and no alternative strategy that appears to have political traction.”

“I believe the biggest risk to UW-Madison is a 15% cut, a tuition cap, and no new tools. I don’t know how you deal with that without being devastated,” Martin said.

Regent Danae Davis pointed out that the Board has been “consistent and transparent in our wish to have the very same flexibilities that (Martin) so eloquently argued for – but for all of our campuses…We need relief for all of our campuses.”

Regent Michael Falbo said he applauded Chancellor Martin’s effectiveness in advocating for her cause, but he questioned why it couldn’t be achieved as part of the UW System.

Martin replied that the proposal on behalf of the entire system “has not gained traction.” “Given where we are now, I can’t in all honesty say to our constituents at UW-Madison, or our alumni, that we will just throw in our lot with whatever might happen going forward,” she said.

Regent John Drew expressed his concern that the proposed move to give UW-Madison public authority could move it towards becoming a higher-tuition model that would exclude students from middle- and working-class families.  He noted that this would go against the UW System’s stated goal of increasing the number of degree-holders in the state.

Regent David Walsh asked Martin whether tuition-setting authority is a deal-breaker issue for UW-Madison. She replied that tuition-setting – as well as other issues such as shared governance and tenure – were critical to moving forward with the plan.

Regent Mark Bradley questioned whether Martin would be amenable to removing the public authority question from the budget bill to allow the issue to be examined more closely.

Regent Mike Falbo noted that the proposal is not a done deal. “We still have a big role in the final outcome in legislative process,” he said.

Judith Burstyn, chair of the University Committee at UW-Madison, told the Board that after reviewing the proposal, it was “optimistic that the proposed new structure would be beneficial for UW-Madison,” but had not had the opportunity to understand its implications for other campuses in the system.

She told Board members that the Committee learned about the proposed separation for UW-Madison from the System in January. Responding to a question by Regent Brent Smith, she told Regents that they were “informed by our chancellor that this was an opportunity and that we were not to tell anybody.”

Heather Daniels, representing the UW-Madison academic staff, said opinions were mixed on the notion of a UW-Madison split, but there was general consensus that “a decision of this magnitude should not be made in a matter of days.”

Brandon Williams, chair of the Associated Students of Madison, noted that preservation of shared governance is critical to supporting the public authority proposal. “If it’s not preserved, it would be a non-starter,” he said.

Michael Moscicke, the government relations director for the United Council of UW students, expressed concern that the potential risks of a UW-Madison split – including in-fighting over limited resources and shared governance questions – could outweigh the benefits. “We don’t want to roll back 40 years of efficiencies and cooperation. If we’re going to move forward, we should move as a System,” he said.

Each chancellor also addressed the Board. Following is a sampling of their remarks.

UW-Parkside Chancellor Debbie Ford told Regents that she feared another system of governance for UW-Madison will lead to unnecessary duplication, greater competition for limited resources, confusion among citizens, increased costs, and ultimately negative impact on the recruitment of faculty and staff.

“Now more than ever, we need to be united as the leaders of higher education in the University of Wisconsin,” she said.

UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson told Regents that talk about a potential split in the UW System coming at the same time as the state’s serious budget concerns is contributing to very low morale on his campus.

“On my campus, it doesn’t feel like it’s about flexibility. It feels like we’re getting a divorce, and we were just served last week. It feels like, in every divorce, the ones who come up short are the children. In this case, we need to be thinking about 182,000 students,” Patterson said.

UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen urged the board to keep the broader perspective. “If all we accomplish this legislative session is to keep UW-Madison in the system, I believe this state has lost a great opportunity. What is the path forward? Simply, as others have stated, flexibility for all.  Especially in light of harsh budget cuts we likely face, we need the state to provide the tools to the UW System and every campus to make decisions that maximize quality and efficiency and allow each institution to pursue excellence in its own place and unique way,” Van Galen said.

UW-Milwaukee Interim Chancellor Mike Lovell reiterated concern over institutions’ ability to attract and retain faculty and staff given the current budget pressure. “Any scenario that we consider has to provide us with the resources so we can compensate our faculty and staff who are doing fantastic things and are the reason why UW System has such a great reputation,” he said.

President Reilly noted that most agree the status quo is not acceptable. “The status quo will not carry us into the future in the way we need to move. We believe collectively there is a better way, or set of ways, to conduct our business. We know a huge element is having more flexibilities.”


The UW System Board of Regents will hold its next meeting on March 10, 2011, at the Pyle Center on the UW-Madison campus.