February 2, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

A New "Wisconsin Idea" for Higher Education

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. REUTERS/Sara Stathas

It’s hard to picture Scott Walker as a thought leader on public education. But in his latest battle with Wisconsin educators, the Wisconsin governor may have opened an overdue debate on the future of higher education, in his state and across the nation.

Walker’s latest budget plan would cut state spending on the University of Wisconsin system by $300 million over two years and freeze tuition. In return, the system would gain at least partial independence from state laws and regulations.

Walker ensured that his plan will set off a political storm by calling it “like Act 10 for the UW (system).” Act 10 was the controversial 2011 bill in which Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature stripped the state’s public sector unions, including the teachers’ union, of their collective bargaining rights. The wounds from that battle haven’t begun to heal.

But his new proposal could inadvertently open a needed discussion on public universities, including land grant universities like the University of Wisconsin at Madison. For instance:

Are these public universities really public? Or are they virtually private universities, in all but name?

If the latter, should they get any state funding at all?

And if not, should state governments, legislatures, and boards of regents have any right to set their policies?

More to the point, what do these state universities owe any more to the states whose names they bear? If the states aren’t willing to pay for them, do the universities have any obligation to educate the state’s children?

If these schools stop answering to their states, can they then cooperate across state lines on the joint research that will propel the Midwestern economy into the 21st century?
And finally, what is a college education for? Is it a public good, which deserves public funding? Or a private good, to be paid by students and their parents?
Wisconsin is the proper venue for this debate. More than anywhere else, the university was guided by the “Wisconsin Idea,” the principle that “the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” The university existed for the state. The state would support the university and, in return, the university would support the state, using its research to build the state’s economy and its classrooms to educate the state’s children.

That idea, like the Land Grant Act itself, is over a century old, and has broken down. So has the deal between states and universities, in which states would pay for universities and the schools would educate the state’s children.

State funding for state universities has been shrinking by the year, not just in Wisconsin but almost everywhere, to the point that these schools are more private than public. They rely much more on tuition, gifts, and corporate contracts than they do on state funding—just like private universities.

If Walker has his way, this state share is going to shrink a lot more in Wisconsin.

The issue here is no less than the privatization of public education. If it hasn’t become a public issue yet, it’s a hot topic on every state university campus.

It’s not exactly a new idea. Nearly 10 years ago, Katherine C. Lyall, the former University of Wisconsin president, wrote that “America is privatizing her public higher education institutions. Largely without serious public policy analysis or debate, a series of individual state budget and revenue decisions over the past decade have made states increasingly smaller shareholders in their public colleges and universities. At the same time, the influence of other shareholders—parents, donors, alumni, and corporations—is growing.”

The statistics support Lyall. Depending on how one calculates the figures, state support for state universities has dropped from more than half 38 years ago to the low double digits now—or even less: James Duderstadt, the former president of the University of Michigan, calculates that his state government pays less than 10 percent of that school’s operating budget.

(This isn’t the first time Wisconsin has debated this issue. Walker proposed four years ago that the flagship Madison campus be broken off from the UW system. The chancellor at the time, Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, supported the proposal, but it died in the legislature and Martin left soon after.) 

But the money has to come from somewhere. Much of it comes from higher tuition, as every parent knows. Increasingly, universities are rattling the tin cup at their donors. And schools are signing contracts with major corporations to do commercial research: educational purists hate this but, if you were a cash-strapped university, what would you do?

The deal between states and their universities has broken down largely because the link between higher education and the public good has been severed. Once, education bought membership in the middle class. Today, parents see their children caught in a brutal economy where a bachelor’s degree doesn’t even guarantee a job, let alone affluence. So they balk at backing higher taxes to support state schools. Legislators hear them, and cut state support. Lacking state funds, the universities raise tuitions, pricing the parents and their children out of the market.

Across the nation, university officials are debating whether they’d be better off foregoing state aid to escape the suffocating oversight of know-nothing governors and legislatures. Duderstadt has suggested that the big state research universities focus on what they do best—research and graduate education—and turn at least part of undergrad education over to community colleges and smaller schools, including private ones.

The universities could pay for themselves, while any state aid could go directly to students to finance their undergrad education.

The Land Grant system built the Midwest economy in the industrial age. Traditionally, the big universities are the pride of their states. Ending this system will be such a break with the past and so controversial that there’s only one argument in favor of it: it isn’t working any more.

Walker seems more interested in needling professors than in true reform. But UW officials should take him at his word, tell him that they don’t need his money, and seize control over faculty pay, tuition, courses, and other details that are controlled now by politicians like Walker.


Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.


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