Rebecca Blank, the new chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, isn’t afraid to concede that her institution hasn’t done a very good job of educating the people of our state about the positive impact of its flagship university.
Ultimately, that may be one of the more challenging and crucial educational challenges it faces.
Blank can certainly be considered an authority on economic impact.
She served in top positions at the U.S. Department of Commerce from 2009 to 2013. Before that, she was dean and professor of public policy and economics in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2008.
UW-Madison has an economic impact of $12.4 billion on our state each year, according to a 2011 report. In fact, the university purchases goods and services in each county in the state.
But educating citizens about UW’s impact must go well beyond dollars and cents. It must include human capital in order to truly communicate the impact. In short, the story must include the Wisconsin Idea.
The Wisconsin Idea is the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom. It spans UW-Madison’s teaching, research, outreach and public service.
In some respects, it may be a principle we better understand with our regional campuses such as UW-La Crosse, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout in western Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Idea doesn’t end with the salaries that UW-Madison graduates earn. It extends to public service, volunteerism, the manner in which UW grads model the type of behavior needed to make Wisconsin a stronger, more giving state.
As the chancellor says, it’s important to highlight “the ways in which you do give back — community involvement.”
In many ways, that can be a very powerful recruitment tool for new students. But it’s also important for leveraging UW assets at a time when state funding of higher education continues to dwindle.
Today’s student attends the Madison campus at a time when the state pays roughly 15 percent of the cost — a far cry from the 50 percent share the state paid when their parents attended.
Blank said the pay gap for professors in Madison has grown from 5 percent below their peers on comparable campuses to 20 percent below — and the quality of life on the Isthmus is only so much of a selling point.
That’s why we urge the Legislature to move forward with long-delayed flexibility measures that allow the chancellor to recruit the talent she needs.
Why is talent so important? Because it helps drive innovation and invention — the key elements in maintaining our universities as “the ideas factory next door,” as Blank suggests.
Our ideas factories will attract business in the 21st century.
We’re pleased that Madison’s chancellor is a strong believer in the UW System and campus partnerships — something we’ve long advocated. During her trip to western Wisconsin last week, she also stressed UW-Madison’s partnership with Gundersen Health System, which serves as the western academic campus for the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
A number of university students who train at Gundersen choose to practice rural medicine — an underserved need in the upper Midwest.
As the chancellor wrote in her blog after the Gundersen visit: “The partnership is a win-win for not only the university and our students, who get the advantage of training at a facility consistently ranked among the country’s best, but for Gundersen and the community they serve.”
In fact, she learned that 68 Gundersen doctors are graduates of UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.
“The SMPH-Gundersen partnership is one example of the kind of outreach that many of our schools do in communities across the state,” the chancellor wrote. “It is the sort of impactful program that we should be touting to everyone who will listen as an example of how UW-Madison makes a difference in Wisconsin.”