Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reform UW System, But Don't Render it Toothless

A busy first week of classes caused me to miss last week's UW System Board of Regents meeting, an event now known for its dramatic highlights and active Twitter feed. I was especially disappointed to miss it because it was the initial unveiling of the work UW System has done over the summer to re-orient itself given the recent legislative changes granting its member institutions more fiscal autonomy.

The main thrust of the documents shared at the meeting appears to be a desire to accomodate the wishes of (some of?) the UW chancellors for more decision-making authority and less oversight from the System office. There will be a downsizing of that office, and a corresponding restructuring.

I have heard a few folks suggesting that these moves look like the New Badger Partnership policy advanced by former chancellor Biddy Martin last spring. Reportedly, they think that those of us who felt the NBP was ill-advised, given its obvious leaning towards privatization, should also be upset about the System changes. Both of these arguments seem to hold little water. First and foremost because the System changes are the result of a transparent process during which time many discussions with relevant partners were held. That in no way resembles what transpired with the NBP. With regard to the System changes there is no evidence that any individuals seek to gain personally or politically from these reforms, or that they make any institution within System more vulnerable to the influence of private interests. These appear to be modifications to bureaucratic processes, rather than large-scale changes to governance structures. There is nothing here resembling the Board of Trustees proposed by Martin and her team, which would have installed a Governor Walker-dominated set of leaders overseeing UW-Madison instantaneously.

That doesn't mean, however, that I am free of concern. On the contrary, I worry that the moves at System belie an approach of appeasing institutional leaders whose natural tendencies are to have as much control as possible over their own campuses. The preservation of statewide interests in Wisconsin public higher education requires close coordination of the work on each campus, and that kind of work isn't fun. It isn't the kind of thing people volunteer to do. And so it must be led by a System whose employees are experienced and paid to do it.

I am also especially concerned with System President Kevin Reilly's statements about the future of national initiatives in System's work. While we can all point to national initiatives that have failed, there are also those that have succeeded--in getting institutional leaders to consider what their data have to say about their policies, at convening faculty and staff from across campuses and states to learn across new practices that could help Wisconsin, etc. Two of the most important aspects provided by national initiatives are vision and cover. Making common cause with colleges and universities across the state and country renews our sense of energy and purpose. And that common work can make it possible to collectively undertake efforts that individually are politically hard to do. It can be difficult, for example, for a chancellor to convince his campus they must talk about racial gaps in their college completion rates--it is often easier if instead campus leaders are invited to become part of a larger group engaged together in these conversations. Decades of organizational research indicates that the best ideas don't come from conversations occurring in silos but rather than those where we can learn from those who've tried and succeeded, and those who've tried and failed. So I hope that Reilly will continue to make System's participation in these national initiatives a priority, and keep the talented teams in place who currently lead them.

Those of us working diligently to preserve Wisconsin public higher education need to support System's right to influence the work of its campuses. Van Hise should not be diminished into a central party-planning office, or one whose workers can do little more than rubber-stamp the offerings of campus leaders. Certainly there should be more give-and-take with talented local leaders like UW Colleges Ray Cross, and Reilly should embark on a statewide tour to interact with faculty, staff, and students at all colleges and universities so as to get in touch with their needs. They all need to get a better sense of him and System writ large, lest during the next go-around they continue to believe the fallacious tales they are told. The position of System president must remain one of power and influence. A significantly weakened System makes all of Wisconsin public higher education vulnerable to further loss of legislative support. That's the last thing Wisconsin's economy and its working families need.

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