Public higher education in Wisconsin has always kept a strong focus on the future. That is why it is encouraging to me to see the elements in Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal that reinforce UW System’s concentration on and commitment to shaping our identity of tomorrow while we deal with the challenges of today.
The Governor’s proposal reflects the challenging fiscal reality facing Wisconsin, and forces every state agency, including the UW System, to make difficult decisions about what it will look like, where it is headed and how it will get there. Components of his plan are strongly aligned with the reforms I have made a priority since I began my job last year, including, but not limited to, the bold proposals unveiled in November that transform the way we do business, hold down the number of required credits to graduate, refine search and hiring practices and examine low-enrollment electives and courses.
Right now, we have a substantial budget reduction to face and to manage. However, the tools to build a more stable and sustainable UW System of the future are within the state budget proposal.
First, under the Governor’s proposal, a more autonomous, but no less public, UW System Authority would be empowered to streamline human resources operations such as payroll, speed up and reduce cost in building projects and modernize purchasing processes to lower cost and even locally source. While these back-office savings won’t be instantaneous, in the long run, they will be significant and will be channeled into our classrooms. That’s how we can help protect and enhance the quality education students have come to expect around the state.
A second component of the Governor’s proposal—creating a dedicated funding stream for the UW System Authority—offers us and our students much greater, long-lasting predictability and stability. Similar in many ways to the state Transportation Fund, it would be funded by the state’s sales tax, with increases based on CPI increases in the previous calendar year, beginning in 2018-19.
What does all this mean for Wisconsin students and their families? The Governor’s proposal would end the counterproductive price swings and spikes students have endured over the last two decades. A reliable, dedicated revenue source for a more autonomous UW System means we can develop and hone long-term pricing and financial models that will make their investments in higher education predictable and stable for students and families.
Imagine the day when our prospective students can hop on the Internet, search out a UW System institution’s admissions department webpage and instantly arrive at a reliable price forecast. No surprises.
While these flexibilities and the proposed funding model seem very new, they do not represent uncharted waters for higher education in this country. Wisconsin remains one of four states that has yet to make or begin this transition to greater autonomy. As currently defined, we operate more like a state agency than the nimble, market-responsive entity our legislators and so many stakeholders and partners believe we should be. Our neighbors have already made changes.
In the early 1990s, a bipartisan team of Minnesota legislators worked side-by-side with their Governor and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) administrators to empower a public system with more autonomy and accountability. My colleagues there consider it a game-changer not just for MnSCU but for the greater prosperity of Minnesota.
Again, as we tackle the immediate budget realities college by college and campus by campus, I ask all of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, partners and stakeholders to help us remain equally focused on the benefits a UW System Authority and a more predictable, stable, dedicated funding stream will bring to Wisconsin’s public higher education system and its people.