Face Time May

Posted on May 1, 2011 :: Face Time
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo by Michael Leschisin of Image Studios

Ray Cross took office Feb. 7 as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Extension and University of Wisconsin Colleges, which is comprised of 13 freshman-sophomore campuses and UW Colleges Online. Cross sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun during his recent visit to UW-Fox Valley to discuss the potential impact of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to separate UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System.

This is a critical moment in higher education. To be in the middle of that is a leader’s dream.

We are facing a proposal for UW-Madison to be separated from the state university system and become a public authority. UW-Madison says this will have no impact on us, but I don’t think they can guarantee that.

The UW System is respected nationally and internationally – it’s held up as a model because the flagship institution is a part of the system. The students who attend our 13 UW Colleges have the potential to go to Madison as a part of the transfer agreement.

The UW Colleges obviously serve an incredibly important role in this state. We’re the open access institutions. About 59 percent of the students, who attend our campuses, are first generation students. Students, who graduate from the two-year colleges and go on to baccalaureate programs within the Wisconsin system, graduate at a much higher rate than their counterparts.

We know from research that for every percent increase in the number of people living in a region that have a bachelor’s degree, the earning power goes up and consequently the tax revenue does, too. It’s a significant difference. We need to produce more college graduates to attract and create the kinds of businesses that the state needs. We’re at 38 percent (of the state’s working-age adults who hold at least a two-year degree). Minnesota’s at 43. We need to move that dial significantly.

What separates our campuses from a traditional community college elsewhere in the country is that they are a part of our state university system. There are clear transfer routes; you can realize your dream through this starting point. When you think about it, it’s an incredible model.

Now, one of the arguments for separating Madison is that they need more flexibility. We need flexibility too. But putting them under a separate governing structure or public authority, if you will, still leaves us with some – if not more – of the same encumbrances that they would have.

It’s just as important to the people of Wisconsin that we would be given the same flexibilities.
That’s one issue. The second is it’s impossible for me to understand how they will supplant an expected shortfall in revenue in any other fashion other than increasing tuition – and increasing out of state students. Both of those changes would further limit access to our students. It reduces the number of seats and it increases your costs. That’s what happened at the University of Michigan, which made up for their shortcoming by enrolling more out of state students. Right now about 37 percent of their student body is from out of state.

There are actually four pieces to the proposal to separate Madison from the system. They want the ability to set tuition, within limits. They want to be able to purchase products or goods outside of the state purchasing requirement. The third category is the capital area. They want to be able to construct buildings outside of the Department of Administration. There are many chancellors who say if we could have such flexibility, it will save us money. And finally, they want to receive money in a block grant, which would prevent micromanaging from the Legislature.

The flip side of this conversation about flexibility is that the taxpayers need to be assured that their money is doing what it’s supposed to be doing and that there’s evidence of that. There need to be clear lines of accountability in this process. But right now we’re way over on this other side.

I want UW-Madison to be a world-class university, but I also want it to not forget its Wisconsin responsibility – and under our current system, there’s a mechanism to help guard against that. They can’t forget the mission to serve the needs of the people of Wisconsin or in effect, actually live out the Wisconsin Idea.

Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →