Katharine C. Lyall
President, University of Wisconsin System

It really is a pleasure to be back here for another Roundtable visit. I welcome the chance to share some parting thoughts with you on the state of our university and the challenges we face. And even though I will step down this summer and spend the next academic year at Stanford, I will be coming back to Madison to live, and I hope to remain active in university life.

Let me begin today by thanking each of you in this room for the contributions you have made to this campus and to the UW System. We are vastly better for your dedication and hard work, and although it may not always seem so, your work is very much appreciated. I especially want to share my admiration for Chancellor John Wiley and thank him for his extraordinary leadership of this campus. He is a wonderful leader for UW-Madison and a wonderful colleague in leading the UW System. I also want to express my gratitude to faculty and academic staff leaders, as well as the campus management team, all of whom help make UW-Madison, in my judgment, the best public university in the nation.

UW-Madison has had an exceptional year:

  • Three Pulitzer Prizes to Madison graduates
  • Two Guggenheim awards to UW-Madison faculty members as you saw in this morning’s paper
  • The business school rose in the national rankings and will get a new addition thanks to a $20 million gift from the Grainger family.
  • Ira and Ineva Baldwin’s legacy of $21 million to create the Wisconsin Idea endowment that is strengthening the university’s tradition of public service
  • The research park is expanding into a new location, and is now housing more than 100 spin-off businesses and has generated as many as 5000 jobs—high-tech, high-knowledge jobs.
  • UW researchers are addressing AIDS, Alzheimer’s, organ regeneration and other advances that I hope will make us all enormously proud of the contributions our researchers are making toward the quality of life.
  • WARF and the new Office of Corporate Relations are powerful engines for community and economic growth, and are increasingly recognized as such.
  • The Law School’s Innocence Project is helping to exonerate wrongly convicted persons.

And the list goes on. This has been a terrific year in so many ways that contribute to the betterment of the human condition.

Since we are now officially into baseball season, I thought I would draw upon the wisdom of one of my favorite social philosophers—Yogi Berra—in sharing some thoughts about where we are as a university and where I think we might be headed.

You may not know this, but in addition to being a great ballplayer and baseball manager, Yogi Berra is a bit of an intellectual. For one thing, according to Hank Aaron, he encouraged literacy.

Yogi was quite a talker as he crouched behind the plate. He used to talk a blue streak to the opposing batters to distract them. In the 1958 World Series, Yogi kept telling Hank Aaron to “hit with the label up on the bat.” Finally Aaron turned and said: “Yogi, I came up here to hit, not to read!”

I guess the moral is that education is not always welcome!

One of Yogi’s most famous phrases is: “This is like deja vu all over again.”

Indeed, as many of us look at the budget challenges facing the state of Wisconsin and particularly our university campuses, it is like déjà vu all over again.

Wisconsin has faced record deficits before; the university has taken substantial budget cuts before; our faculty and staff have had their pay frozen before; we have been criticized for not being efficient before; and our students have seen tuition rise before. Lately, when the state of Wisconsin catches a budget cold, the university gets pneumonia.

The good news is that we have survived those past challenges to become a stronger university system. And I am confident that we can do so again.

At the same time, I agree with Yogi when he says: “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

The economic trends for this state are worrisome. Our per capita income is below the national average. The percentage of our adult population with college degrees is below the national average. The amount of venture capital invested in Wisconsin is small. The state ranks almost dead last in the amount of federal money it brings in —the only bright spot there, in fact, is the university system, which brings in large amounts of federal financial aid and research dollars due to the tremendous competitiveness of UW-Madison’s faculty and staff.

Yogi also said: “If the fans don’t wanna come out to the ballpark, no one can stop them,” and Wisconsin manufacturers seem to be heeding that call. The state has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past two years and very few are likely to come back. That may not be so bad if the state can successfully make the transition from a largely agricultural and manufacturing economy to the knowledge-based and service economy of the future. And that is where we come in.

You may be interested to know that creating 100 high-end, brain gain jobs has the same direct economic impact as creating 250 new manufacturing jobs. That is why, in my view, it made little sense to cut more than 600 UW faculty and staff positions in this current state budget, while creating nearly 600 new positions in Corrections.

The public understands this. In our opinion polling, we consistently find that Wisconsin citizens not only have tremendous pride in our university, but they also make a direct connection between the university and the health of the state’s economy—to which we annually contribute about 10 billion dollars.

Yogi said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I believe that we are at a critical fork in Wisconsin’s road. Two paths lie before us. We can either continue to ratchet back and disinvest in the public programs that have made this a vibrant state and a great place to live. We can keep making the easy choices, such as backfilling our deficit spending with one-time funds, including auxiliary fee funds and tuition.

Or we can work across party lines to thoughtfully tackle the state’s problems, to consider investments that are strategic and will pay off long-term for our citizens, to return to the innovative and progressive traditions that have been our hallmark. I must confess that at the moment, I see very little appetite for taking this latter fork in the road, but I remain hopeful that we will. And this includes investing in our students who represent the brightest hope for Wisconsin’s future.

There has been much talk recently about a taxpayer’s bill of rights. I’d like to suggest we think, at the same time, about a “student bill of rights.” What might those rights be?

First, the right of all qualified students of any age, no matter where they live in the state, to be able to get the higher education they need, and want, so that they can grow professionally and realize their potential.

Second, the right of those students to get an affordable education. We are seeing students from low-income families being priced out of our universities because of rising tuition and insufficient financial aid—aid that has increasingly shifted from grants to loans.

Third, the right of our students to have their tuition used for their education and not for deficits or other state programs.

With state funding erosion during the past decade, we have lost more than 700 full-time faculty members—200 here at UW-Madison—while we have added 10,000 additional students to the system.

And demand remains strong. Our enrollments continue to grow. Pretty soon, another of Yogi’s observations may hold true of the UW System: “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”

Of further concern, as you well know, has been the zero and one-percent pay plan for faculty and staff. As we fall behind our peer universities, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain quality faculty and staff—who are the heart of our enterprise.

Across the system, we are seeing the erosion of quality in other ways as well—inadequate library resources, cutbacks in supplies for classes, less funding for academic counseling, poorly maintained classrooms and facilities.

Students also have a right to get access to the courses and labs they need to pursue the areas of study they choose and to graduate in a timely way. The UW’s net state funding cut of $100 million in this biennium has forced our institutions, not just here but across the state, to eliminate many such courses and sections, to overcrowd our labs and to reduce the majors and programs available to students on our campuses.

Why should a “student bill of rights” matter to Wisconsin residents who are not directly connected to the university? Because we live in a world where knowledge is doubling every five years.

We live in a global economy in which 70 percent of the new economy jobs require a college degree.

We live in a world in which our graduates will change careers four or five times, perhaps more, because business and industry are evolving at such a rapid rate.

We live in a world in which state, even national, boundaries have less meaning than ever before—companies, even universities, are increasingly multinational in flavor.

And because we live in a state that can directly connect much of its economic momentum to the strong public education system it has created with the investments and sacrifices of past generations. Imagine, for a moment, what the community of Madison would be like without the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Certainly a far less prosperous and far less interesting place to live.

So how do we ensure that we and our state leaders take the right fork in the road?

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there,” said Yogi Berra.

With that in mind, the Board of Regents took an important step last August, launching a year-long study to chart the future course of the UW System. It has been an ambitious undertaking involving more than 100 Regents, Chancellors, faculty, staff and students who have, in turn, sought input from dozens more individuals including legislators, business leaders and students.

Across five different working groups, there has been remarkable consistency in the recommendations that are emerging around three themes:

Access and affordability, quality and service to the state.

Those will be the themes that you hear us sound often in the months to come.

We also must continue working to serve our many publics—and to help strengthen and grow Wisconsin’s economy. This has been a great and abiding strength of this campus, in particular, and I encourage you to keep at it.

There is so much that is positive here at UW-Madison that one can only be optimistic about the future of higher education in this state.

It is true that we are challenged to move faster, to be more nimble, to create, hire, teach, conduct research and manage in more strategic and creative ways than ever before in our history. But we are up to that challenge and I think all of you who rise to that challenge every day understand that even more than I do.

As you leave here this afternoon, think of the influential role that higher education has played in your life and help us to realize that “student’s bill of rights.” Help us urge our state leaders to keep the University of Wisconsin-Madison and our other fine UW institutions the great strength of Wisconsin.

Help give our citizens access to affordable college degrees that will prepare them—not only to satisfy their own ambitions—but also to lead all of us in Wisconsin down the appropriate fork in the road to a brighter future.

Remember, as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Thank you.