Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Is the University of Wisconsin System Following the Florida Model?

Me at my alma mater, UW Oshkosh, December, 2014.
I have been getting emails from many leaders of the Wisconsin University System as of late asking me to contact Wisconsin legislators and other political leaders to express my concern over the proposed 16% budget cuts to the system. I received my undergraduate degree in geology from UW-Oshkosh, my MS in Geology from UW-Milwaukee, and my Ph.D. in Geography from UW-Milwaukee and I am very appreciative of the quality education I received.  There is no doubt in my mind that the UW System is one of the best in the world.

Before I get into the cuts, let me just review what makes the Wisconsin system so successful.  The system has always had good vision and planning from the top.  The goal has always been to provide solid educational offerings throughout the state that do not duplicate each other and that promote economic development while supporting broad strong liberal arts education.  The targeted nature of the system allowed for specialization of programs with national reputations.  For example, UW-Whitewater is one of the best schools in business, UW-Green Bay is one of the best schools in theater, and UW-Milwaukee is one of the best urban focused universities in the world. At the same time, the flagship campus at Madison is one of the world's leading research universities and is consistently ranked in the top 10 public schools in the U.S.

Currently, Wisconsin is undergoing a budget shortfall.  One of the remedies that is suggested by the Governor is to cut the system budget by 16%.  The Governor says that the cut is much smaller--2.5%.  Let's break this down a bit.

Universities get a considerable amount of funding from granting agencies like the National Science Foundation to conduct research.  The governor is counting this money in his total university budget.  Of course, this money cannot do what the state money does--deliver courses to students.  Universities also get a considerable amount of money from donors--again this money is being counted in the total budget dollars to get at the 2.5% figure.  Again, this money cannot be used to deliver courses.  Donors give money for scholarships and to build buildings--not to pay faculty to teach.

The reality is that the UW System will be taking a double digit hit.  They are receiving a 16% cut in the money they receive from the state.

This is a budget figure that is all too familiar to me from my days teaching at a big public university in Florida.  Over 23 years I saw budget cut after budget cut (many of them double digit) to the point that today the state funding for public education is a small part of the university budget.  

Was this good for public education in Florida?  

When I left, we had courses with 1200 students taught by an instructor.  Raises were rare and small.  The administrative support for faculty and chairs was limited. Administrators were overworked or worse.  There was a widespread movement of tenured faculty (including your's truly) out of the state.  Plus, the state disbanded central planning of universities which led to regional chaos and competition that caused many problems throughout Florida.  

Don't get me wrong.  There are great things going on at Florida Universities despite the lack of state support and administrative leadership.  Yet, I don't think many would look to Florida as a model for how to run a great educational system.

I totally understand the difficulty in balancing budgets and I am sympathetic to the notion that universities have to have a share in budget cuts to ensure fairness.  But before Wisconsin enters a path of double digit budget cuts, I hope leaders take a hard look at what happened to the Florida system over the last 20 years.  Do Wisconsinites really want to go down that path?  

The UW system is one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the world.  I hope they keep it that way before they suffer the same fate as the Florida system.

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