The barbarians are not just at the UW gate they are the gatekeepers. Send an S.O.S.
Whither the University of Wisconsin?
Say the words “University of Wisconsin,” and most people in the state swell with pride.
For some it is Rose Bowls, the Sweet 16, or fond alumni memories. For most it is a commitment to public education dating back to the middle of the 19th century when legislators, governors, senators and presidents understood that an educated citizenry is crucial to a democracy.
We think of Nobel winners and others who came close; John Bascom's conversations with Bob La Follette about the mission of the UW; and the tremendous number of international students who have graduated here, some going on to lead their own nations.
Ask anyone about the mission of the University of Wisconsin, and the word "research" eventually comes up. The mission is broader, of course, but UW-Madison is one of the world’s great research institutions.
As an undergraduate, I came the university conscious of the Wisconsin Idea. Remember? "The borders of the university are the borders of the state." The school was devoted to problem-solving, spreading education through the UW-Extension, helping small farmers and businesses, and taking on every problem confronting our state. Sadly, I don't hear many echoes of the Wisconsin Idea today.
I haven't heard UW System President Katharine Lyall speak out with passion or promise about failing schools in Milwaukee or elsewhere. In fact, the one time the UW had a chance to help with a charter school, where did it turn? To the UW-Madison School of Education? No, it contracted with the Edison Project, a private company with a bad reputation and a poor performance record.
Working with the School of Education, challenging professors and students to help solve a problem, would have given new meaning to the Wisconsin Idea. But the opportunity was missed.
Now Lyall, who took a 43 percent raise a short time ago, thinks privatization may be the way to get the UW out of its budget hole. Or is the hole just a convenient excuse for the idea of spinning off the UW to the private sector?
In a superb article in the Capital Times recently, reporter Aaron Nathans helped expose the UW’s laughable arguments for privatization.
First, a UW budget planner makes the incredible assertion that "donors would be more likely to make gifts for building projects if they knew the university could break ground sooner rather than later." That's reminiscent of the argument the privatizers used a few years ago when Milwaukee County wanted to privatize the Milwaukee Natural History Museum: "Donors would feel more comfortable giving to an institution in the private sector than the public sector." Really?
Would it be asking too much to see the budget planner's notes? Have some donors actually said, "I'll give you $10 million to build a building and name it after me if you break ground by September"? Or, "I'd love to give you millions, but the red tape is too cumbersome"? Perhaps the UW budget planner meant that alumni would be more likely to give to the UW if it were named Rupert Murdoch University or the University of Bill Gates.
Also, in these times of troubled economics and frozen enrollment, are new buildings really what we need? Or should we instead decrease tuition and maintain pay levels to keep top faculty here?
There are many questions legislators and citizens ought to ask of the UW before we even begin to talk about privatization:
1.Lyall's salary is, by Wisconsin standards, extraordinary. The justification? Some regent or other said Lyall needed the raise for Wisconsin to "remain competitive." Really? Did Lyall threaten to leave? Did anyone with objectivity research the issue? Do other schools provide the benefits we give to our president, or is the president of the University of Iowa now arguing for a house to "remain competitive"?
2.Lyall wants to give university bureaucrats the power to negotiate their own labor agreements, set tuition, build buildings (the kind that go up faster) and run the joint. Who owns the buildings? Who holds the patents? Who gets the residuals? Why has the Board of Regents recently applied for a trademark? To whom, one might ask, is the university administration responsible? Would it be asking too much if we called for a Board of Regents that would focus on improving the UW rather than giving it away? Can the citizens recall or impeach the UW president, petition for lower tuition, demand a referendum on the dean?
3.What if privatization fails? Who picks up the pieces? Would it be the Wisconsin taxpayers? Or would we just let the UW collapse?
State government is shortchanging our great institution, and the governor should rethink the cuts he is demanding lest we end up with a second-rate school. The UW administration ought to be fighting like hell for more money, not making foolish comments like, "We're getting spun off over a large period of time." (One of the regents actually said that.)
I think it is fair to say that most of us do not know what is going on up on Bascom Hill. But we know that special interests are rubbing their hands waiting to pounce on the new and improved privatized university. If those interests control the Legislature, and they do, and if they elect justices, and they do, and if they elect governors, and they do, then they also certainly have designs on our great state university.
What's the buzzword of the day? Oh yes, we need "a conversation" about the future of the UW. Fair enough. Let's have a conversation. But let's make it more than a business deal with corporations, special interests and big donors. Let's have it involve Wisconsin’s working families.
And might we ask that the administration back up its recommendations with some research? Heck, maybe the UW School of Education could collect the data.
(A version of this article appeared on the Capital Times opinion page on April 15.)
April 20, 2003
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Ed Garvey is editor and publisher of FightingBob.com.