“The University of Wisconsin is the most important institution in the state,” argued Michael Grebe JD’93. “And the flagship institution is Madison. It’s vital to Wisconsin. There is no institution that has more impact on more people throughout the state, period.”
Grebe, who serves as vice president of the UW System Board of Regents, wasn’t merely boasting about the nature of an institution he serves and oversees. He was making a point about the vital role that Wisconsin’s public universities play in the state’s economic health. And he was expressing his concern that the UW System’s universities are weakening, perhaps to the point where they will lose their ability to drive growth for the state.
The Future of Higher Education
Grebe joined three other advocates for higher education during The UW Now Livestream on February 9: Katharine Lyall, former president of the UW System; Cory Nettles JD’96, Wisconsin’s former secretary of commerce and a board member for the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association (WFAA); and Robert Venable ’86, president of Charter Manufacturing and a member of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, which produced the report The Falling Behind? The State of Wisconsin's Public Universities and Colleges. Badgers United, which sponsored the report, which served as a focus for the conversation, made the case that restricted budgets and a lack of independence are holding the UW System back in the race to attract and keep the best faculty and students.
“There really is a crisis and a need for action and a need for change,” said Venable. He noted that state support has fallen from 42 percent of the UW’s budget a few decades ago to only 14 percent today. That decline has been exacerbated by the pandemic economy. “We would be having this conversation without COVID,” he said, “though it’s a catalyst.”
Difficulty Setting Market Rate
Lyall noted that the state legislature’s decision to freeze tuition over the last 10 years has made it impossible for UW System universities to set a market rate for the price of their services. “I don’t know of any other university that has had its tuition frozen for the past decade,” she said. “I don’t know of any business that could survive having its prices frozen for a decade.”
Nettles called on viewers to “light up the phone lines” and ask legislators to give the UW more freedom. He described the university as an economic “juggernaut” that supplies the state, nation, and world with highly educated entrepreneurs. “I didn’t fully appreciate the awesome power of the university until many years later, when I became secretary [of commerce] for the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “To see the number of graduates that the UW turns out and how those graduates go on to become leaders of industry throughout the world was certainly an eye-opener for me.”
Administrative Freedom Could Ensure Wisconsin Growth
The panelists each gave brief remarks before joining in a roundtable discussion. Host Mike Knetter, WFAA’s president and CEO, moderated the conversation and put forward questions from those who viewed the event live on YouTube. This was the second panel Knetter had moderated this week about Falling Behind. On February 8, he took part in a panel discussion about the report for Badgers United.
The UW Now speakers addressed the various points of the Falling Behind report, and each made the case that providing funding and administrative freedom for the UW System will be important to ensure Wisconsin’s growth. “The UW is the engine that drives statewide economic development,” said Lyall. “I think sometimes we forget that, thinking of the UW as a Madison issue, but it is part of a statewide system that reaches every corner of Wisconsin.”
To hear more from the speakers, view a recording of The UW Now. The series is offered live on Tuesday nights via YouTube, and the next event will take place February 16.