Higher Ed Experts Weigh in on Proposed Split from UW System

Monday, March 28, 2011
In a terrific piece in Inside Higher Ed, Jane Wellman and Charles Reed explain why a break from UW System is not an appropriate means with which to obtain greater flexibilities for UW-Madison.

As I've said here many times, despite Chancellor Martin's claims to the contrary, doing so would be effectively shirking our responsibilities as a public institution. A board charged with keeping UW-Madison's best interests at heart--and only UW-Madison's interests-- would destroy the state's emotional attachment to Madison as a "common good." Think about it: where else in the nation can you find citizens across a state who treasure the flagship's mascot and sports teams as their own, despite having never been a Badger?

Here's Wellman and Reed: "While system boards work imperfectly, their core purpose is more important now than ever before: to balance institutional aspirations with broader public needs, through planning, differentiation of missions, program review, and attention to student flow across institutions. Weakening the authority of higher education system boards will only serve to advantage the already privileged. The institutions will inevitably gravitate even more away from public needs, and toward institutional self-interest: selective admissions, merit rather than need-based aid, more research, and greater academic specialization. The teaching function and service to poor and working students and to underserved geographic areas lose out in this equation. This will accelerate the declines in educational attainment our country is already experiencing."

Those arguing that Madison has no choice, else it dies a slow death, are in my view "crying wolf." The lone comment on this article on the IHE website exemplifies this: "Thanks to the disastrous policies of its state legislators, U Wisconsin has zero ability to attract quality new hires at this point, and will inevitably crash and burn. It's a cautionary tale of what happens once "We the People" are in charge of higher education."

Huh? We continue to attract quality new hires all the time-- my department has searched every year for the past 6 and landed fantastic people. This year we had an enormous of of applicants and our first choice accepted the offer. This despite offering a starting salary of less than $70,000. I see the same going on in departments all around me. Sure, we've lost some good people-- but mainly because of location-- they have moved to be nearer to family, in warmer weather, to places with direct flights to major cities, etc. In less than five years, four of my most-esteemed colleagues left for elite private institutions and then returned to UW-Madison within a couple of years because they missed the academic community.

That's the thing-- at the end of the day those professors best suited to working at UW-Madison are committed to it for reasons that go far beyond compensation. We work here because we love the seamless communications across departments and schools, the lack of snobbery, the commitment to serving the general populace, the beautiful and affordable community, and a focus on substance rather than style. If we succumb to the competitive, elitist spirit that has consumed some of our peers, most of that will be lost. Sure, you'll be able to replace us with other talented folks in search of highest wages-- but you will lose in the long run, for you will have lost our soul.