A Challenge to the UW Board of Regents

Thursday, April 28, 2011

While the last several months have been contentious ones, I think that the road ahead needs to include many more uncomfortable discussions. In particular, we need to have fierce conversations about two key issues that have received insufficient attention in the debate over the New Badger Partnership:

(1) The public purpose of our flagship university
(2) The way we spend our money

Much has been said by UW-Madison administration about the need to compete on a global scale, not only with American universities but with those in Shanghai. We have also heard that the best way for UW-Madison to meet the needs of Wisconsin is for it to be the most competitive it possibly can be. Furthermore, we have been told that such a goal does not exclude other objectives, including the desire to be at least modestly accessible to all of the state's residents. (Just google "Biddy" and NBP and you'll get more than a dozen examples of each of these statements. Or simply get the transcript from Tuesday's student Q&A in Bascom.)

These claims are deeply problematic.

As Gordon Davies, long-time scholar of higher education (and head of Virginia's State Council for Higher Education from 1977 to 1997) puts it, public higher education should "maximize service, not status." Colleges and universities, Davies says, need to "wake up"-- and UW-Madison is no exception. To regular readers of this blog, his advice should sound familiar. "Here's the new definition of prestige: an institution that serves the people of its state or region carefully at a price all of them can afford. Now, make that part of the definition of 'elite'."

Madison's leadership has it all wrong: public universities should not be "encouraged to emulate highly selective private universities, not because there is something wrong with highly selective private universities but because the two have different missions...In their scramble to get more applications so they can reject more applicants, to win more recognition for selected academic programs, and to 4 be among the top 30 (or even 100!) research universities, universities tend to lose sight of their importance to the regions in which they live."

Being from Virginia, Davies knows this landscape well. I listened to UW's student radio this morning as a pro-NBP student (Tyler?) tried to make the case that UW-Madison really needed the NBP because it only has one flagship--whereas places like Virginia and New York are lucky to have multiple top universities. What he didn't seem to realize is that he was undermining his own argument, for as Davies points out, in Virginia "having two institutions (UVa and William and Mary) designated as “public Ivies” a few decades ago was an honor because they were part of a balanced system of institutions within which there were places for everyone. Having many, if not most, public universities aspire to elite private institution levels of selectivity is a serious error and a sign of a reward system gone wrong." Lest you think that isn't happening in Wisconsin, just take a look at the recent statements made by the chancellors of other UW universities.

All available evidence is that our reward system has gone wrong in Wisconsin when so many public universities are acting like "wannabes" seeking to "emulate the elite and highly selective." Wisconsin higher education is not doing a good job at serving all of its citizens and it therefore cannot afford to engage in "meaningless ambition." Again, Davies: It is "wrong to assume that what is good for individual universities is good for a state...we are betting that we can compete in this global economy by educating a technological elite and ignoring the masses. China is making this bet. So is India. But they are much larger populations than ours. For the United States, and for individual states, is this an economically responsible bet? Is it a morally responsible choice?"

UW-Madison's current effort to push for a new approach to help it gain more revenue misses the boat on another important dimension as well: our financial woes are at least as attributable to how we spend our money as to how we obtain it. Or, as Jane Wellman of the Delta Cost Project once put it, “the funding problem in American higher education is as much about focus and priority as it is about revenue."

The NBP skipped several key steps in what's become a widely accepted approach to higher education reform, one promoted by national initiatives such as Making Opportunity Affordable. Before looking for ways to bring in more cash, universities first need to work with the state to (a) set goals (with regard to the above discussion in particular), (b) align spending with those goals, (c) improve degree productivity, and (d) enhance public accountability. Only after those conditions are set do they really have a case for seeking more money.

Some of the strongest evidence that UW-Madison skipped these crucial steps before pursuing the NBP lies in constant repetition of the claim that we are engaged in a "balancing act" that requires sacrificing equity in order to enhance quality. This is the classic "Iron Triangle" model known to all higher education analysts-- and it is a hopelessly outdated one. The points of the triangle are funding, access, and quality-- and the claim is that any effort to improve one area is only possible at the expense of another. Put differently, as experts at a recent University of Virginia policy conference noted, "[Colleges and universities] have long equated quality with resources, which means that spending cannot be managed without sacrificing either access or quality. Although some economic theories about the unique cost structures of the non-profit sector are consistent with these views, reality simply cannot support them. The times demand greater access and equal or greater quality despite a long, difficult recession. Furthermore, the Iron Triangle assumptions are not supported by research. Research shows a very weak relationship between spending and performance, measured not only by degree attainment but also by the level of the state population obtaining access, retention and degree production, and production of graduates who remain in-state to fill high-demand jobs. To be sure, measures of reputation - such as admissions selectivity, or proportions of faculty with terminal degrees, or spending on athletics and endowment earnings - all correlate with money. But for the most part these measures have little to do with the public priority to increase degree attainment. The Iron Triangle is a set of false assumptions that contribute to the fractured dialogue among higher education constituencies."

This is exactly what has happened at UW-Madison. Leadership has insisted on an approach that, while initially claiming to enhance both quality and equality, ultimately it admits succumbs to a balancing act that tips towards sacrificing access for quality. This is a classic response of college administrators, who find every way possible to demand more money while insisting that their decisions are caught in the Iron Triangle (see Table 1 at this link).

Our future depends on creative thinking on the part of the Board of Regents. The board needs to think long and hard about how to bring the full constituency of Wisconsin public higher education together-- and soon. Wellman and Davies both offer good advice: "States need to re-assert control over their public colleges and universities, to make them once again members of coordinated systems with clearly defined missions...For public institutions, boards need to manage this discussion rather than try to avoid it...Visible public processes need to be put in place to address how university systems or institutions will accomplish these goals, including dialogue about teaching and learning, and attention to ways that costs will be managed. Higher education leaders need to use these forums as a way to stimulate institutional learning, to put information about costs and spending into context, to educate institutional leadership, faculty, students and public policy officials about where the money comes from, where it goes, and what it buys."

The time is now. The Board of Regents must lead.