What Wisconsin Needs Now: Collective Efficacy

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
When citizens seek to solve social problems, they are much more effective if they work together rather than alone. This basic, sensible idea is also known as "collective efficacy." And it is what must be inculcated in Wisconsin residents if we are to preserve our world-class public higher education systems.

Our willingness to act, when needed, for one another's benefit, generates long-lasting effects. Unfortunately, there is a strong impulse to turn inward when threatened, to focus on self-preservation rather than community preservation.

Solutions for issues like the fiscal challenges facing the University of Wisconsin System will not emerge if we follow leaders with imperious styles who seek to "win" no matter what the cost. Regardless of the specific policy agenda, the process of policy formation is essential since it dictates the terms of the debate.

This may sound exceedingly feel-good, but it is also deeply pragmatic. The savings that will accrue to individual campuses from any "flexibilities" are small (numbers provided to me by Darrell Bazzell are in the $10-20 million range for Madison) but collectively (if granted to all campuses) fairly large. The same is true for proposed efficiencies such as adjustments in faculty/student ratio. If, as a community, UW System examined that key cost driver across departments and divisions throughout all institutions, it could reasonably begin to make assessments about resource distribution. I suspect that some departments at UW-Madison would actually see that ratio decreased as a result, perhaps because of resources saved at another campus-- and vice versa.

The climate at UW Madison has eroded dramatically over the course of several recent policy debates such as the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, the Graduate School Restructuring, the Huron Engagement, and now the New Badger Partnership. Faculty, staff, and students are fearful of repercussions from both the success and/or the failure of the NBP. Rumors of the imminent departure of our friends and colleagues fly around daily. Motivation and productivity are down.

The way forward lies in refocusing on what has always made Madison -- and System -- great. That is: our commitment to a community that prioritizes fearless sifting and winnowing and shared decision-making to a degree uncommon in other institutions of higher education. That's the community and commitment that put us on the map. We have been through hard financial times before, and inevitably will go through them again. Stick to what we do best, and what we can do best no matter how many dollars we have at the moment, and we will shine.