For much of 2011, Wisconsin has been a leading actor in politically tinged dramas about higher education. In February, the battle over collective bargaining rights  of public employees erupted (it remains unresolved), with those who work in higher education among the affected. March saw the controversy over an open records request , which some saw as a politically motivated, for the e-mails of a renowned history professor who had been critical of Governor Scott Walker.
The state has also been home to a highly charged fight -- now reaching its climax -- over whether to grant autonomy and administrative flexibility to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The debate has been closely watched in other states where college officials and lawmakers are questioning assumptions about the relationship between state governments and their public institutions of higher education, particularly flagships, as public funding continues to dry up.
In Wisconsin, the issue has grown heated, partly because it has taken place amid a large decrease in state aid, and partly because Madison Chancellor Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin appeared to have stealthily struck a deal  with Walker, whom many in higher education eye with deep suspicion, and evidently blindsided the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, who had been making an effort to win flexibility for all the institutions in the system.
While Madison failed  to garner legislative support for its own autonomy, other proposals that would give administrative and financial flexibility to the state’s colleges and universities recently passed a significant milestone. On Friday night , the influential Republican-dominated Joint Committee on Finance backed a measure that would scale back state oversight of the campuses in the UW system, which many higher education officials in Wisconsin had long sought (and which was spelled out in a competing vision offered by the UW System). The state's universities would be able to more freely make personnel decisions, buy goods and build facilities -- though they still would not be able to set their own tuition. The measure still must pass the full Senate and Assembly before reaching Walker's desk.
While a legislative consensus appears to have emerged, the discussion around these proposals has raised fundamental issues about public higher education in Wisconsin, and about the future financial health of and the best way to manage such institutions in general. Many of these questions, observers say, will persist long after any legislation is hashed out. And while some are heartened by the level of engagement the debate has sparked in such arcane matters as university governance, others worry that the bitterness and divisiveness will continue to reverberate.
From Flexibility to Autonomy
Today’s debate has several antecedents in Wisconsin, including efforts from past years, if not decades, to free institutions from the kinds of regulatory strictures that the state generally imposes on other public agencies. The spark for the current battle was a September 2010 article Martin wrote for Madison Magazine  in which she laid out her vision for what she dubbed the New Badger Partnership.
Noting that state support for the flagship had decreased as a percentage of total revenue over time, Martin argued that the university needed more freedom -- in managing facilities projects, buying goods, providing predictable salary increases for faculty and staff, and increasing tuition while also defraying the cost to students with more financial aid. These measures, the argument continued, would recognize that Madison, as a top-tier public research institution with international reach, operates differently from, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and even from other public universities in the state with a more regional or exclusively instructional focus.
“A new business model would distinguish UW-Madison from other state agencies, acknowledging that it operates in a very different environment -- one that is increasingly market-driven,” she wrote.
Over time, however, as Martin traveled the state to tout the New Badger Partnership , a new facet of her plans emerged that eventually grew central to her vision and became controversial, if not toxic, to many others in higher education. It was a plan to make Madison autonomous, governed by a public authority with its own 21 trustees, 11 of whom would be appointed by the governor without Senate confirmation, and 10 of whom would represent different groups of constituents, including faculty, staff and alumni. Since the early 1970s, Madison has been part of the state system, which is governed by 18 regents who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, and serve staggered seven-year terms. Two of these seats are for students who serve for two years; two others are reserved for the heads of the state’s Department of Public Instruction and Technical College System Board.
The argument for autonomy and flexibility acquired both urgency and, to some, additional justification when Walker proposed cutting $250 million from the state’s appropriations to higher education over the next two years. Half of this cut, or about $125 million, was to have fallen on Madison (under the measure backed on Friday, Madison's share of the burden likely would be closer to $94 million, though the total amount of the cut statewide will remain the same). Autonomy, Martin argued , would enable Madison not only to manage the cuts, but also to tap grants that would allow the university to scale back tuition increases that the state cuts would otherwise necessitate. Significantly, autonomy as articulated by the New Badger Partnership also would have allowed Madison to hold on to the revenue it generates from tuition and other sources and, potentially, to invest it more aggressively rather than having to deposit it into the state treasury, as is now required.
Much of the resistance to the idea of independence came from the rest of the UW System and Madison’s sister institutions. Critics argued that establishing two governance structures would be wasteful and redundant, and could create difficulties for students looking to transfer or for scholars seeking to collaborate, said David F. Giroux, spokesman for the system. Some on Madison's campus also questioned whether the assumptions underlying the New Badger Partnership had been fully and carefully analyzed, and worried that Madison eventually would raise tuition to the point that low-income students would be less able to attend.
“People worried about the deleterious effects of intensified competition among UW System institutions, and the perils of pitting UW-Madison against every other campus in a fight for scarce state resources,” Giroux said in an e-mail. “We got a glimpse of that competition during the past few months, and it wasn't pretty.”
The notion of autonomy for Madison -- and the language used to justify it -- also ran afoul of political realities and sensitivities in the state, many observers noted.
Despite its size and stature, Madison could not easily outmuscle the 12 other four-year institutions, which had grown larger and more powerful since the state system was created in the early 1970s, said Judith N. Burstyn, professor of chemistry and pharmacology and, until last week, chair of the University Committee, which is the executive branch of the Faculty Senate.
While Republicans control the state Assembly, Senate and the governorship, all of Madison’s elected representatives are Democrats, a fact that some in the capital city worried would hamper Madison’s ability to lobby for state aid. Others observed that rejecting the New Badger Partnership also offered Republican state senators, some of whom are targets of voter recall efforts, a chance to put some distance between them and Walker. “I came to believe this after I watched the political process play out,” said Burstyn. “It was really the state politics that killed the public authority.”
Other sensibilities played a role as well. Advocates for the New Badger Partnership touted Madison’s unique role and status in the state, and cited the desire to bring its tuition and operations more in line with other major public research institutions. But to some Wisconsinites from outside the capital, this position carried a whiff of self-regard and superiority that is at odds with Midwestern traditions of humility, thus widening the distance between Madison and the rest of the state, said several observers.
“We basically cemented a view of this institution as hopelessly disconnected and fundamentally elitist,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, assistant professor of education policy studies and sociology, and, through her blog , a vocal critic of Martin and her plans.
Martin, answering questions from Inside Higher Ed via e-mail, said that it is better to air and address entrenched attitudes, such as the narrative that Madison is elitist, rather than "simply hoping they will go away if we keep our heads down." And she defended the exceptional nature of the institution. “UW-Madison is unique within the system. To acknowledge that reality does not diminish the value of the other institutions in the state unless differentiation is considered, by definition, to be an offense,” she said. “In the long term, it will have been helpful to talk openly about the campuses’ different histories, missions, peer groups, and competitive pressures.”
She also rejected the characterization of the dispute as simply pitting Madison against the rest of the state. “Opinions did not break down between Madison and the rest of the state nearly as neatly as it might appear from the outside,” she said. “The proposal had support from alumni and business leaders who live all over Wisconsin and it had some of its strongest detractors in Madison. Recognizing that complex reality will help."
While there are now no prospects to establish a public authority for Madison (a study on it might be commissioned by legislators), a parallel proposal, called the Wisconsin Idea Partnership , sought for all of Wisconsin’s universities many of the same freedoms that Madison wanted for itself under the New Badger Partnership, while keeping Madison under the aegis of the regents. Of the two plans, the Wisconsin Idea Partnership, which was championed by the UW System and backed by the chancellors of the other universities, has come closer to meeting with legislative favor. Both Martin and the UW System welcomed the news of the backing by the Joint Committee on Finance, according to news reports.
But tensions between the advocates for the two plans ran high for months. When those who supported the Wisconsin Idea Partnership published an analysis  showing its similarities to Martin’s plan, she released a rebuttal . Martin’s supporters, particularly a privately funded group called the Badger Advocates, continued, even after the demise of Martin’s proposal, to dismiss the Wisconsin Idea Partnership. In a news release  issued Wednesday, the advocates called the Wisconsin Idea Partnership “hastily” drafted and deemed it part of an effort on the part of the UW System “to protect a bureaucratic fiefdom.” They also cast Martin as a “respectful and considerate” advocate for “real reform.” (Martin said she was “dismayed” by the statement , calling it “ill-timed and problematic, to say the least.”)
Goldrick-Rab said she was troubled by broad-brush critiques of the UW System as bureaucratic, inefficient and sucking resources from Madison because it gives ammunition to those who want to gut or do away with public higher education. She acknowledged that she has had her own problems with the UW System over the past seven years, when she has been working with the system and tapping its data for her research. But Goldrick-Rab added that she also has listened to vehement complaints about the system from her colleagues even though, she said, most of those who were complaining had never met the people who work there or substantially interacted with it. “To me the meta-story here is how much people want to make statements about how higher education works without wanting to know facts,” she said. “They want to believe that everything is badly run. The problem is, that’s the master narrative of how we get rid of public institutions.”
Many observers nationwide have been watching the debate over Madison’s autonomy as it has unfolded, and they see commonalities with other states -- as well as lessons for how campus and system leaders might work together more effectively.
The debate in Wisconsin fundamentally reflects a larger question about the identity of public institutions of higher education in an era when such entities are drawing less and less of their money from the state, said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.
Such debates are to be expected in states like Wisconsin and Oregon, which she said are known to have a heavy hand in regulating higher education. “Public and regional universities are asking to have greater degrees of freedom from the historic understanding of what it’s like to be a state agency,” she said. “The issue of appropriate deregulation and greater degrees of autonomy to manage resources and be held accountable is to be expected and is appropriate.”
What Wisconsin and other states are attempting to hash out, she said, is part of a larger effort to respond to dwindling state support. The challenge, Wellman said, is to preserve the essential public character of public institutions of higher education while crafting a different funding model for them. This model will move away from a presumption that public universities -- particularly flagships with sprawling balance sheets, real estate holdings and often hospitals under their management -- are “state-owned and operated” and should be regulated that way, to what she called “investment approaches” to meeting public needs.
“I don’t think that we, as a public policy matter, should be any less responsible for meeting public needs than past generations,” Wellman said. “By the same token, it is a fiscal reality that we are in a time, for the foreseeable future, where state revenues are not going to be enough to meet all public needs.”
Fiscal realities have motivated other flagships to try to pull away from their larger state systems of higher education -- and they generally do not succeed, said Richard Novak, vice president for programs and research for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He said that, in the past, similar ideas had been floated on behalf of such flagships as the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Neither proved successful. (And, while Martin has argued that an independent board of trustees would be in line with the governance structure of its peer research universities, a recent analysis  by the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau disputed that assertion.)
And while financial strains often spark a push for autonomy, Novak said, they also tend to serve as a catalyst for other, more latent motives. Some flagships might nurse a grievance that their progress is being held back or, as Novak put it, that they are being “leveled down” by their affiliation with the rest of the system. Advocates for Martin’s plan cited this argument, though the Legislative Fiscal Bureau rebutted it, too, arguing that cuts in state funding have actually hurt Madison far less than other four-year institutions in Wisconsin, when adjusted for enrollment growth.
What’s most important about any governance structure, Novak said, is that trustees consider the unique circumstances and needs of their institutions. In other words, no matter what governance structure they’re operating under -- whether it be systemwide or the board of an autonomous campus -- trustees need to operate in good faith and live up to principles of sound oversight. “Governance is important, but I don’t think it’s the key decision by which a flagship is ultimately successful,” he said.
Diversification -- or a finely tuned sense of how different institutions within the same system operate -- is key to making sure each college or university in a system gets what it needs, said Aims C. McGuinness, senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. “One of the real lessons from this should not be, 'Now systems should be free and independent,' ” he said. “You need to realize that systems are really effective and they need to differentiate. That’s absolutely the message.”
While McGuinness said that states and systems need to make sure they are truly recognizing and supporting land-grant institutions, he also drew a lesson for Madison and other flagships that have sought to split from the system. Such institutions should remember, as many in Madison learned afresh, that while flagships often boast prestigious football teams and robust alumni networks, they are, McGuinness said, “also the institutions that are resented more deeply than anything else in the state.”
Paradoxically, flagships may well be best served by acting unselfishly, he argued. “The way forward is, in fact, to be a leader and recognize their role in supporting multiple entities, and to be an outstanding system player,” said McGuinness. “The more they are poor system players and end-run the system, the more they will be shut down by the political forces that simply don’t want that to happen.”
In an even larger sense, the recent events in Wisconsin illustrate what some see as hungry dogs scrounging over table scraps. While advocates for the New Badger Partnership and the Wisconsin Idea Partnership tussled over questions of governance, the underlying assumption that public higher education would be cut by $250 million remained unchallenged, some observers noted.
The question that remains unanswered is how committed either political party, or the public in general, is to the principle of accessible public higher education, said Kris Olds, a professor of geography at Madison and visiting professor at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. (He is also co-author of the GlobalHigherEd  blog for Inside Higher Ed.) “Are these partnerships supplements to public support, or are they simply legitimation vehicles to reduce state revenue streams in the future?” he asked. “The worst-case scenario is that these changes will move us one step forward and two steps back: in other words, we will have new freedoms to reduce expenses and generate some new streams of revenue, but at the same time state revenue allocation declines even further.”
Martin resisted the interpretation that continuing decreases in state funds are inevitable, but said she and her staff were simply being pragmatic about the dim prospects in the short term, given the state’s deficit and Walker’s refusal to consider tax increases. “We have laid the groundwork for increased investment in higher education when the economy in Wisconsin begins to grow again,” she said.
Giroux, of the UW System, said that diminished funding for the near future is a reality, regardless of the discussions over which partnership was best. “Both sides argued vigorously about the proposed fragmentation of the UW System,” he said. “If we can bring that same intensity to future discussions of higher education funding, speaking with one voice about the value of higher education, we might be able to make some headway.”
Some on each side of the debate are trying to emphasize common ground as they move forward. Bernie Patterson, chancellor at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, who once likened Madison's potential split from the system to a divorce, saw signs of hope. "I think we’ll be able to reconcile," he said. "I think that not only will the marriage survive, but I think we’ll be stronger for having gone through this.”
On Friday, Patterson also said that the debate eventually should prove to be positive, largely because it had prodded people to talk about the need to create a new business model for public colleges and universities. "This is a wake-up call for education," he said.