The University of Wisconsin-Madison is recognized throughout the world as a premier research university. Sixty years ago, to serve the growing post-WWII demand created by a more complex economy, this grand university was joined by two- and four-year college campuses to form the UW System of universities that also became one of the best in the United States. Now State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has declared that he is "embarrassed" to be a graduate of the UW system. His reason: DEI, the system’s extraordinary efforts to attract, retain and educate students from deprived backgrounds through its program of "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion." The goal of DEI is to increase access and achievement through targeted advising on courses, study skills, tutoring, opportunities, and skills for thriving in the huge, unusual environment of a modern research university.
What the Speaker should be embarrassed about is the state's underfunding of the faculty and facilities of the system. Funding per student in the UW System now ranks 43rd in the nation with no relief in sight in the recently-passed state budget. Moreover, despite the pandemic-induced inflation of roughly 13% over 18 months, the faculty and staff were awarded a mere 2% salary increase in the current budget, even after a decade without any salary increase. Chronic underfunding will continue to cause serious damage to the competitive position of the University in the academic world. In turn, it will diminish the opportunities for the business community to hire highly-educated graduates, and to engage in collaborative projects with university personnel.
Two Episodes of Disinvestment
Two recent episodes illustrate this hostility to the UW system and its missions of research, teaching, and service: denial of funding for the proposed UW Madison Engineering Building, and the deteriorating budget for UWM.
Proposed UW Engineering Building
Despite the state’s current surplus of $7 billion, the gerrymandered, non-representative legislature has failed to include in the current budget UW-Madison’s proposal to construct a new state-of-the-art engineering facility. Currently, Wisconsin has hundreds of students in the queue seeking training in engineering, and employers wanting to hire them; this new facility would add significantly to the capacity to meet that demand.
Meanwhile, UW Milwaukee is one of the greatest institutions in the country for the upward mobility of its graduates. Moreover, the Carnegie Foundation now ranks UWM Research Tier One, the top ranking (aka "R-1"). Despite its success, UW – Milwaukee’s budget is being seriously neglected. Between 2015 and 2020, its main-campus faculty numbers dropped by 24%. One consequence: the highly productive Milwaukee Institute of Drug Discovery once had a seasoned, full-time leader with expertise in translating bench research into new drugs. Today, an excellent faculty member struggles part-time to lead the Institute. Another: the space-strapped University received no support for its plan to renovate a vacant former hospital as new space for its College of Health Sciences.
Former UW-System President Ray Cross once observed that the future of Wisconsin runs through UW-Milwaukee, recognizing the centrality of Milwaukee in Wisconsin’s economy. That future seems a long way off unless the University receives needed funding.
Often overlooked: because UW research professors collaborate with researchers around the world, they provide a kind of multiplier effect supporting the local and regional economy. These relationships expand the scale and scope of the knowledge resources available to the home state university and its stakeholders, including the business community that wants and needs to hire its graduates. Cutting-edge education is particularly important for advanced manufacturing and technology firms that want to locate within the state but to do so require a robust supply of engineering and science graduates.
The 21st-century economy is a knowledge-based economy in which universities and colleges play the central role in preparing the future workforce. Competition within this global economy certainly does occur between nations. But it also takes place between states and communities within nations. Wise investments in vocational and technical schools has brought that spending up to 4rth in the nation on a per student basis. State Investment in the UW should be brought up to the same standard: up from 43rd to 44th.
Another facet of the competition: universities elsewhere have made sustained, cutting-edge investment in their engineering & science programs, an attractor of top students from Wisconsin. Once top students earn degrees in other states, they seldom return to Wisconsin to pursue their careers, raise families, and contribute to local economies.
Surplus is transitory; invest in educational assets
The state $7 B budget surplus was due to the in-pouring of federal stimulus money in response to the pandemic. Surpluses generated by such emergencies are unlikely in the future. Fortunately, a transitory surplus can be converted to a more permanent economic benefit by investing in long-lived productive assets. The proposed engineering school at Madison and a restored and expanded UWM are just such investments.