Rusty Cunningham: UW split would send divisive message

2011-02-27T00:45:00Z 2011-02-27T07:19:01Z Rusty Cunningham: UW split would send divisive messageBy Rusty Cunningham | La Crosse Tribune

What began as an effort to seek more flexibility and autonomy for public higher education in Wisconsin is quickly turning into an ugly spat between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the other campuses in the UW System.

Much to the surprise of her bosses, UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin has proposed the New Badger Partnership. In essence, it would allow UW-Madison to secede from the UW System and institute its own board of trustees and its own rules — and to heck with the other campuses, such as UW-La Crosse.

Splitting up the 40-year-old UW System doesn’t sound like a new partnership.

Ultimately, this unbecoming family squabble will mean that Wisconsin taxpayers will fund duplication and in-fighting at a time when our state should be focusing on getting the most out of an eroding pool of resources.

Bucky, why are you throwing your 25 UW sisters under the campus transit bus?

The concept of more flexibility and autonomy would benefit the entire system, from Superior to Whitewater. For instance, freeing the UW System from the state’s arcane, onerous building regulations would save a great deal of time and money, as we saw with the needless added expense to the new stadium at UW-L. That’s one of several examples of costly state regulation that needs to be changed.

But it needs to be changed for the entire UW System, not just UW-Madison.

Let’s say it with great pride: UW-Madison is a world-class university.

When the campus leaders of the University of Nebraska talk about the benefits of joining the Big Ten this fall, they don’t fixate on Madison’s football prowess. They do envy the $1.1 billion in research funding that Madison brings in.

An examination of 2010 Fortune 500 CEOs shows that 17 have a Madison degree — which only trails Harvard, Columbia and Penn.

No question, UW-Madison does Wisconsin proud.

But the other campuses in the respected UW System aren’t exactly Last Resort U.

This will come as a shock to those on Bascom Hill, but not all of Wisconsin’s educational excellence happens in Madison.

The UW campuses in La Crosse and Eau Claire continue to be among the top-rated bargains in the country because of their excellent quality and value. We’ve said it before, but with four applicants for every seat available for incoming freshmen, it’s clear students and parents understand the value of the educational experience at UW-L.

From physics to business, engineering to jazz, campuses like ours in western Wisconsin are recognized leaders in the upper Midwest and beyond.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this proposed divorce is that it appears the leaders of the Madison campus have fallen under the spell cast by Gov. Scott Walker’s Age of Divisiveness. This is absolutely not the time to split the system, because it will further erode the quality and raise the cost of public higher education and the support it receives in our state. It will lead to more fighting over fewer resources.

The split also flies in the face of The Wisconsin Idea — the century-old concept that higher education should influence and improve the lives of Wisconsin residents far beyond the classroom — throughout all of our great state, not just in Dane County.

While Madison can boast of its research funding, look at the positive influence played by university Small Business Development Centers in driving business growth and expertise throughout our state.

Do we really want a have and have-not system in higher education in our state? Do we really want the other campuses to be called something other than University of Wisconsin campuses?

“I think it’s vitally important, speaking as chancellor of UW-La Crosse, that we’re called University of Wisconsin-La Crosse,” Joe Gow said during a recent UW Board of Regents meeting. “And that as a system, we all benefit from the many great things that happen here (in Madison).”

Remember, Gow used to serve as an administrator at Winona State University, part of the Minnesota State College and Universities system, which does not include the University of Minnesota.

Should there be more money-saving flexibility and autonomy for the people who lead higher education in Wisconsin? Absolutely.

Should we pay for needless duplication and competition at a time when we can’t afford either? Absolutely not.

We’ve always been a big fan of Bucky’s. But, this current power play shows the badger has more than a little weasel in him.

Rusty Cunningham is publisher of the La Crosse Tribune.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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