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UW-Madison’s Badger Partnership plan might gain traction

By Matt Pommer

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin wants to reduce the state controls on her campus. Her idea — if backed by the incoming administration — could be among the most controversial ideas in the new Legislature.

Her proposed Badger Partnership would lessen state government oversight and give the Madison campus greater ability to manage its finances and move quickly on personnel and administration issues.

“Research universities are talent magnets, attracting students, staff and faculty from all over the world,” Martin said. She noted the Madison campus has attracted about $1 billion annually in external research money and has created more than 1,600 jobs with the nonstate money.

The state now provides just more than 18 percent of the operating costs of the Madison campus. But the difficult state budgets in recent years have pinched the Madison campus, according to Martin.

“Education, research and outreach have taken significant hits, putting quality at risk,” she said.

Martin’s move appears a pitch to significantly increase tuition at the Madison campus. Well-to-do families can afford to pay more for a Madison campus undergraduate degree.

“Keeping tuition where it is subsidizes families that can afford a great deal more than the current ‘sticker price’ of tuition,” she said in a published pitch for the Badger Partnership. The so-called sticker price is the cost of tuition before financial aid is awarded.

Madison tuition wouldn’t be as high as that at private universities, according to Martin, but the goal is to “only get closer to our public peers.”

Legislators always are reluctant to increase the tuition paid by the families back home. Allowing the UW System Board of Regents to set the Madison tuition would allow the legislators and the new governor to duck responsibility for the higher cost.

Martin’s plan also would give more freedom on the salary issue, rather than waiting for the Legislature to approve pay increases. Martin argues that more “predictable increases” could help attract and retain top personnel.

Will the Legislature buy into this sort of reduced state oversight? Other campuses may be wary that Madison is getting special attention, leaving them to sort through what remains.

But with the state facing about a $3 billion budget gap for the 2011-13 biennium, elected officials may be happy to approve a new approach.

Martin clearly understands that higher education budgets are low on the fiscal totem pole in hard economic times. It is easier to squeeze university spending than to reduce money sent back to school districts and county and municipal government.

Cutting higher education also is easier politically than easing prison populations through early release programs.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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