It’s time for Wisconsin to increase its investment in its public universities.

After too many years of huge cuts by both Democrats and Republicans, the University of Wisconsin System deserves the additional $42.5 million investment it is seeking in the next state budget.

The key word is investment.

Members of the Board of Regents – most of them appointees of Gov. Scott Walker – have approved the plan, which now must go through the state budgeting process.

Regent President Regina Millner said the UW budget request is reasonable and targeted to the state’s needs. She said the investment will mean “increasing the number of college graduates ready to enter the workplace in high-demand areas; reducing time-to-graduation to increase affordability for Wisconsin families; and providing services to ensure students have the support and programs they need, whether traditional students or working adults.”

The request was developed after more than two dozen meetings throughout the state – including in La Crosse – to hear community feedback on ways the UW must continue to grow the economy.

UW President Ray Cross, who visited the La Crosse Tribune editorial board last week, points out that the bulk of the job growth comes from jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher – “a creative, innovative workforce.”

Cross says that for every dollar invested in the UW System, Wisconsin receives $10 in economic impact.

“Part of our job is explaining how critical this is to our economy,” he said. “And you can’t ignore the data.”

On an annual basis, the data show that UW:

Generates 7 percent of Wisconsin’s gross state product.

Confers 36,000 degrees.

Receives 176 patents for student work.

Brings in almost $300 million in private grants and contracts.

Provides more than 185,000 hours of volunteer help through students and UW-Extension.

The data are especially impressive given years of budget cuts.

At the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the latest round of budget cuts meant the elimination of 54 positions – something that doesn’t help reduce class size or speed the time to graduation.

And the economic impact of 54 jobs lost doesn’t help the area economy.

While the need for financial investment is crucial, it’s also well past time to stop denigrating UW’s positive impact on our state, its people and our economy.

Wisconsin is once again last – that’s 50th out of 50 – in the United States in business startups, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Consider there are more than 331 UW-related business startups – something that deserves praise, not criticism.

Wisconsin drew nationwide notice recently when Ron Johnson, its senior U.S. senator, criticized what he called a higher education cartel – a word more often associated with Colombian drug lords and OPEC oil ministers – and suggested Ken Burns’ documentaries could replace some history professors.

If such rhetoric is meant to help the UW System’s stellar reputation and its effort to retain and recruit top talent to its campuses, it’s not working.

As Cross told the Tribune: “This reveals his lack of understanding about learning. A dialogue must occur (between the professor and the pupil). It is hard to make that efficient.”

In addition to increasing its UW investment, the state also should begin allowing UW to manage its own construction projects, instead of sending them through the Department of Administration.

We’re convinced – and we’ve seen examples on the La Crosse campus – that construction can be finished at lower cost and in less time if UW manages these projects.

The UW System continues to be respected nationwide – for its graduates, its faculty and its contributions to the state and its economy.

It’s time for the UW to receive the respect – and investment – that it deserves in Wisconsin.

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