Every few years, especially when the economy turns down, public universities -- especially flagship and other research universities -- crank up campaigns for more autonomy from their states.
If you can't (or won't) give us more money, college leaders tell their states, at least free us from outdated or irrelevant state rules that drive up our costs or restrict our ability to spend the money we do have more efficiently. (We wouldn't mind more freedom to raise tuition, by the way.)
This ritual is unfolding again in states such as Oregon  and Louisiana, but nowhere is it playing out as starkly -- and with as dramatic twists -- as in Wisconsin, a state that has long been heralded for its well-organized and coherent governance structure for higher education, but is facing severe budgetary duress.
While another set of political events in Wisconsin -- Governor Scott Walker's efforts to curtail the bargaining rights  of unionized public employees -- is capturing most of the public attention now, the machinations over higher education governance have high stakes for all of the state's public colleges, and national implications as well.
At an emergency hearing  of the University of Wisconsin System's Board of Regents on Friday, attendees heard the chancellor of the system's Madison campus, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, explained a proposal  expected to appear in Walker's forthcoming budget Tuesday. Martin argued that separating the flagship from the rest of the system would both help Madison and not damage the system. She also struggled at times to explain how the proposal emerged from a series of private meetings with Governor Walker that appeared to take her bosses at the system by surprise -- and why Madison officials are still withholding from the regents some information they have about the legislation.
The participants, befitting their Midwestern reputation, remained overwhelmingly civil -- "Wisconsin nice," as Chancellor Richard Wells of the Oshkosh campus put it. But many of the regents and other chancellors made clear that they believed the governor's proposal would do "inevitable harm" to the system's other campuses and, by extension, to Wisconsin residents, and that independence for Madison would undermine the system's longstanding push for regulatory autonomy for all of its campuses .
And nationally, the Wisconsin situation, whatever its outcomes, promises to underscore and potentially alter the debate over public university flexibility, by raising the specter not only of less regulation but also of dismantling existing governance structures to accomplish it.
Survival and Separation
At Friday's meeting, the president of the Wisconsin system's regents, Charles Pruitt, sought -- right out of the gate -- to minimize the drama.
"Let me begin today by saying what this special Board of Regents meeting is not about," he told those gathered on the Madison campus. "This meeting is not about the leadership of this great university. We all have much respect for Chancellor Biddy Martin. Indeed, this Board of Regents and this UW system president hired Biddy Martin to be the 28th chancellor at UW-Madison two and a half years ago. So I'd like to just start there; let us all take a deep collective breath about that."
There was plenty of reason to doubt whether Martin would survive Friday's meeting. In the preceding days her boss, UW System President Kevin Reilly, and his bosses, the system's board, appeared to have been blindsided by revelations  that Martin had been in private discussions with Walker about a proposal that would grant the flagship Madison campus "public authority" status, with its own board independent from the system.
Reports had circulated  as Friday's meeting approached that the board might fire Martin, or that she might resign, given perceptions in some circles that the discussions about Madison conflicted with the system's own push for more regulatory flexibility from the state. The rumors prompted newspaper editorials and brought impassioned letters on Martin's behalf, like this one  from the Madison historian William J. Cronon.
Pruitt laid those prospects to rest right away on Friday with his opening statement, and Martin did not come across like someone who feared that her job was in jeopardy.
While she expressed her "regret" that the recent events had "contributed to the stress that everyone is feeling," she defended both the private nature of her discussions with the governor and his staff and the university's willingness to encourage Walker's apparent interest in granting more flexibility to Madison alone, even as the system and its other campuses seek many (if not all) of the same kinds of flexibility that the proposal would grant to Madison.
Madison officials, Martin said, had "learned" that other chancellors and system officials were also meeting with the governor, and Wisconsin higher education history, she said, is filled with examples of individual campuses crafting their own plans with state leaders. "It didn't occur to me, therefore, that meeting with the governor privately, given that everybody else was doing it, was inappropriate," Martin said.
She also noted that Walker and his staff had told Madison administrators that they would consult with leaders of the university system, and discouraged Madison officials from discussing the proposal with others. (At one particularly awkward point in Friday's deliberations, Madison's provost, Paul M. DeLuca Jr., told the regents that the university could not give them a draft of a legislative report on the governor's autonomy proposal for Madison because "we're not allowed to release it." "It would be real nice if we could get that report," one regent said wistfully.)
Martin insisted that while she had aggressively promoted the New Badger Partnership,  the Madison campus's year-old plan to deal with ever-shrinking state financial support by getting more flexibility on tuition setting, hiring, managing facilities, and purchasing, university leaders were caught by surprise when the governor's staff raised the prospect of giving the campus "public authority" status and its own governance structure, separate and apart from the UW system.
As discussions unfolded, Madison officials "consistently emphasized the importance of flexibility for all our campuses," Martin said, almost plaintively. "Ask anyone on the governor’s staff." She told the regents that she did not know why the UW system's own proposal for public authority status for the entire system "hasn't gained traction" and why Walker seemed to favor independence for Madison alone.
But for the campus and its leaders to "forgo an opportunity that does have traction seems to me to be a crying shame," she said. Martin also asserted that Madison, as a research university competing on a national and international level, does have a different set of needs from most other UW campuses.
"I have done what I thought you hired me to do -- I have tried to do what was right for UW-Madison, its faculty, its staff, its students, its alumni, its supporters," Martin said, to loud applause when she closed her initial presentation to the board.
No one at Friday's meeting appeared to doubt that; what some of them hinted, and at least one or two said directly, was that Martin and Madison appeared to be putting the flagship's interests above the system's.
"We have been consistent and transparent in our wish to have the very same flexibilities that you so eloquently describe, but for all of our campuses," said Danae Davis, a regent who heads a Milwaukee nonprofit group for teenage girls. "Why do you think this works to the benefit of our other institutions, or do you not care?" That jab at Martin drew cries of protest from the chancellor's many supporters in the meeting room.
Other regents asked variations of the same question, if less confrontationally, and all of the other campus chancellors who spoke during Friday's meeting expressed opposition or reservations, with varying degrees of forcefulness and emotionality, to the Madison-only autonomy proposal.
"Is now the time to create another governance system of higher education in Wisconsin? No," said Deborah L. Ford, chancellor of Wisconsin's Parkside campus. "I fear a separate system of governance for UW Madison will lead to unnecessary duplication, greater competition for limited resources, confusion among our citizens, increased cost, and will negatively impact the recruitment of faculty and staff."
Bernie Patterson, chancellor at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, described how news of Madison's possible split from the system had compounded existing worries on his campus about the state's budget woes and Governor Walker's assault on employee unions.
"Morale is very low; people are scared, anxious, worried," he said. "Then for this to come along.... 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. And it feels like the ones who come up short, as in every divorce, are the children. We need to be thinking about [the] 182,000 students" in the UW system.
Martin did her best to make the case that Madison's potential separation from the system would not preclude more flexibility for other campuses, but might actually clear the way for it, by serving as a "test case, a laboratory, a first step ... that can be extended … to other institutions."
Ultimately, though, the conversation revolved around the question posed by Regent Michael Falbo: "Why can’t you do everything you want to do as a part of the system?" In other words, would Madison be satisfied if state officials agreed to give the UW system as a whole more authority over budgeting, tuition setting, facility planning and other areas -- and the system was able, in turn, to give Madison the independence it needed?
Another regent, Mark J. Bradley, a lawyer from Wausau, asked pointedly if Martin would oppose having the Madison-specific proposal removed from the budget bill Governor Walker plans to introduce Tuesday, if it is in there as expected.
Martin's answers -- a qualified yes to the first, and an unqualified yes to the second -- were unlikely to have satisfied those who accused her of putting Madison's interests ahead of the system's.
To meet Madison's needs, Martin said, an alternative to the governor's expected proposal would have to possess "a very strong chance of succeeding" politically, and to delegate the budget, tuition setting and other flexibilities to individual campus leaders -- and to recognize that different kinds of campuses need different kinds of autonomy. "Not all the flexibilities that would benefit Madison, or that Madison has the capacity to deal with, would actually be relevant for [other] campuses," she said. "The idea that we’re all the same, interchangeable, and could all do the same thing, is simply wrong."
"Right now," she said, there is no apparent alternative that is either politically viable or certain to give the UW system the power to grant its various campuses differentiated autonomy. "We're a long way from either of those things."
She added: "I can't say to our constituents, we will just throw in our lot with whatever might happen going forward," when "we don't have any assurance that by statute or any other formal way flexibility that the system might be granted might be delegated to us.... If there is a very strong proposal that seems as though it would grant Madison the same things that we might otherwise get … in a way that seems good for everyone, then we would certainly work on such a proposal, work with such a proposal, and respond to it in good faith."
Implications for Elsewhere
Several experts on public university governance said the discussions in Wisconsin were noteworthy for a few reasons.
There are good and legitimate reasons why public colleges periodically push for autonomy (if not outright privatization), particularly when the economy tanks and state funds shrink, said Aims C. McGuinness, senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Public colleges in Wisconsin have had to lay off and furlough their employees in recent years because the state has mandated such actions for all state workers, when the universities might have been able to avoid such steps if they had more independence, he said. Pensions, purchasing and capital spending are all areas in which public colleges in Wisconsin, Oregon and other states could benefit from more autonomy to go their own way, he said.
"It would make a difference for the University of Wisconsin System to have broad control over its destiny," McGuinness said.
But while giving the UW system more flexibility and freedom from state regulation may make sense, he said, the situations in Wisconsin and Oregon also reveal a willingness by flagship and research institutions to pursue their own goals even at the expense of state structures and the universities' peers.
"It really is important for a state to have a diversified system of higher education," McGuinness said. But "maintaining support for the diversity of missions in a state really depends on the various sectors being willing to play together in some coherent way. The trouble is, right now, there is less attention to the public needs in a state than at virtually any time I've seen. Presidents, especially at a lot of land-grant and research universities, really care zero about that. They're hired to advance their institutions, and that comes first."
Several previous efforts to give individual campuses much more latitude and independence than others have been stifled, even in states with far less coherent governance structures than Wisconsin.
Virginia, the state most commonly held up as having given its public institutions latitude from administrative oversight, never had a university system. But when the state's three highest-profile and most selective institutions -- the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and the College of William and Mary -- sought more autonomy in the middle of the last decade, state politicians quickly pushed to expand the arrangement to other public institutions, creating a three-tiered system  based on institutions' financial strength and operating abilities. The system very much differentiates among institutions.
"There was a sense that the state couldn't let the jewels in our crown hop out and do their own thing, without a huge downside to those that remain," said David W. Breneman, the Newton and Rita Meyers Professor in Economics of Education at UVa, who was intimately involved in the autonomy deliberations there. If public institutions other than the original three had not also gained more autonomy, he said, "I don't think anything would have happened."
Breneman also notes that the increased autonomy the Virginia colleges gained was limited; while the universities won some additional authority to set tuition levels, "we got about half a loaf. We really didn’t get tuition autonomy."
McGuinness said that while decentralization and autonomy can make sense for state systems, public university leaders should pursue those goals cautiously and in coordinated ways. "End runs" by individual campuses often lead to competition among campuses that cannibalizes funds, and arguments for "flexibility" that are ultimately just excuses to raise tuition ever higher tend to alienate politicians and "inevitably lead to recentralization," he said.
"That will lead to a state saying, 'A plague on all your houses -- we give you decentralization,'" McGuinness said, " 'and what you've done with it is increase tuition.' " Right now, several states, including Washington and Oregon,  are weighing proposals that would invest more authority over public education at all levels in a central state body.
He said it should be possible for state leaders in Wisconsin and elsewhere to craft a system that would give flexibility to the entire university system yet still take into account differences that distinguish research institutions like Madison and Milwaukee from the system's regional four-year universities and two-year colleges. "Such a system should not be seen as insufficient for dealing with the needs of Madison," he said. "The system has the capacity to make differentiated decisions."
Next Steps in Wisconsin
Reilly, the Wisconsin system president, was asked by a regent near the end of Friday's emergency meeting, "What happens next?"
"Having much more flexibility to operate our own institutions" is clearly necessary, he said, because "we're all saying the status quo is not acceptable," and "certainly will not carry us into the future in the way we need."
If, as predicted, the governor's budget bill Tuesday calls for public autonomy only for the Madison campus, Reilly said, "we will see if we can work with it to amend it as the governor has said he’s willing to consider, so that we could have a public authority kind of model to work for the whole system."
"If that's not possible," he said, the system would explore "other ways of getting flexibility delegated to us" in the legislative session that will follow the budget deliberations.
And on the issue of "Madison being a public authority by itself," Reilly said, "we need to get a lot more input from a lot of other areas in the state before we make a decision."