Walker seeks to split UW colleges

The proposed bill would make UW-Madison a “public authority.”

Jessica Van Berkel

The University of Wisconsin- Madison may split from the University of Wisconsin System and see tuition rise by 20 percent over two years if Gov. Scott WalkerâÄôs budget bill is enacted.
The bill, proposed Feb. 11, was passed by the Assembly last week and includes a provision to make Madison a âÄúpublic authority.âÄù This would reduce state administrative overhead and allow more flexibility in decision-making in areas like salary and building projects.
Madison merged with other state universities 40 years ago. A Board of Regents governs the system, and all state funding is channeled through them.
Under WalkerâÄôs plan, the regentsâÄô governance of Madison would shift to a Board of Trustees that would include 11 governor-appointed members and ten people from the university community. The regents would only oversee other University of Wisconsin System schools.
In a memo to the Walker administration in January, Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin laid out the public authority idea. The memo came after the Walker administration approached Martin with the governorâÄôs budget ideas in December.
Madison would receive state funding through a single block grant under the bill. Any money the University received from sources other than the state, like fees, tuition and private donations, would be kept and doled out internally. Currently, that income goes back to the State Treasury.
This bill would remove some of the accumulating overhead thatâÄôs become a âÄúbyzantine  mazeâÄù at Madison, Martin said.
MartinâÄôs January memo also outlined a state cut of $50 million to Madison, and a 20 percent increase in tuition in the next biennium. This would put tuition on par with similar institutions, she said, and scholarships would be increased to help offset losses.
The changes would not impact MinnesotaâÄôs reciprocity agreements with Wisconsin, MadisonâÄôs Dean of Students Lori Berquam told students in a Web chat Thursday.
This budget bill follows months of campaigning by Martin for the New Badger Partnership, a program affording Madison more flexibility.
Details of the partnership were presented to the school community, but the public authority idea did not come out until the budget bill was released.
In a letter to Martin last week, the University of Wisconsin system president and regents officials stated concerns that they and other university governance groups âÄúhave been excluded from conversations about a major sea change in the structure of public higher education.âÄù
The Board of Regents, which is supposed to oversee the chancellor, did not know what was in the bill, including the proposal that would unseat its role at Madison.
Regents met in a special session Friday to discuss the changes from the original Badger Partnership proposal. They said the governorâÄôs bill was a âÄúradical departure from earlier statements about administrative flexibility and efficiency.âÄù
The meeting lasted about five hours, with testimonies from chancellors of the various Wisconsin universities, as well as student, faculty and staff governance groups.
It was broadcast live in two lecture halls where students, alumni and faculty crowded into aisles to watch Martin lay out her case for supporting the governorâÄôs proposal.
Martin addressed concerns and said she would oppose any reduction to the schoolâÄôs power over tuition or changes to the shared governance structure.
Early in the meeting, Regent David Walsh waved a sheet in the air that explained a âÄúpublic authority.âÄù
âÄúIt would have been nice to have more input âĦ or to know about this,âÄù he said.
In a testimony, Judith Burstyn, chair of the Faculty SenateâÄôs executive committee, said she knew about the public authority status possibility, but Martin told her not to tell anyone about it. The comment drew âÄúoooooâÄôsâÄù and gasps from the talkative crowd listening in.
Many people watching from the lecture halls rejected the change and circulated a petition against the split and tuition increase.
Regents and chancellors were also pessimistic about fragmenting the system, and said it could affect research efforts.
Collaborative work between schools will continue, Martin emphasized, repeatedly saying âÄúthis would not inevitably damage other system intuitions.âÄù
Regent John Drew said the bill could overburden other state universities. Spiking tuition and using scholarships to fill the gaps could exclude students from Madison and make them flock to other Wisconsin schools.
The average family salary for a Madison student is $95,000, much higher than the income from other schools in the state, like the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Chancellors were concerned about a greater disparity if Madison upped tuition.
Informing students of the difference between MadisonâÄôs sticker price and the actual cost will be key, Martin said, along with taking care of students from middle-income families through scholarships.
Martin said she has to play the hand the state dealt âÄî and that hand had no money in it.
âÄúThe biggest risk,âÄù she said, âÄúis a 15 percent cut, a tuition cap and no new tools. I donâÄôt know how you deal with that without being devastated.âÄù
Angela Lang, MilwaukeeâÄôs student body vice president, said sheâÄôs afraid her school will be next on deck for cuts. Lang was one of many student body representatives from across the state who attended the regents discussion.
Some, like Dylan Jambrek, student body president at the universityâÄôs Eau Claire campus, addressed the chancellors and regents. Jambrek opposed the governorâÄôs bill, and said splitting from the other schools will hurt the âÄúbrand equityâÄù of Madison.
MadisonâÄôs student government groups are waiting on the final bill before commenting. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate, where 14 Senate Democrats have fled to Illinois, disabling the legislative bodyâÄôs ability to vote on the proposal.
Regents plan to have discussions across the state as they wait on the final version of the budget and will use input to decide how to proceed.
The five-hour meeting showed a desperate need for change and flexibility, University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Riley said, âÄúbut how to get there is not clear at this point.âÄù