Are public universities in Wisconsin public institutions or not?

Governor Scott Walker, along with University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin, want to transform the Madison campus into a privatized entity that doesn’t deal with the inconvenience of public oversight. Walker and Martin also want to split the Madison campus from the rest of the UW system.

The rest of the UW leadership objects. Their solution: Give us the same deal Madison wants, only without the split.

Here’s a better idea: a unified UW system that’s accountable to the public.

The spat between Madison and the rest of the UW system played out during a meeting of the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee Thursday. Opponents of the split are absolutely right — there is no good reason to create two separate bureaucracies for higher education in Wisconsin. Any argument for needed flexibility for the Madison campus applies to any UW campus. To suggest that Madison needs flexibility in a way that UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse or UW-Baraboo don’t is naked elitism.

But those who want to keep the system unified also need to acknowledge the need for public oversight. Despite massive budget cuts over the years, these institutions still receive public dollars, and they still perform a public mission.

If there are silly rules that make UW schools less effective and efficient, then repeal them. And it’s very important that academic freedom be maintained even when it makes lawmakers and the public uncomfortable. But Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, is right when she says, “Along with flexibility, there must be accountability measures.”

If leaders of the UW System don’t like the fact that the public deserves a say over how a public system is run, then they should apply for leadership openings at private institutions.  Only a public university system can carry out the UW’s stated mission that the borders of the university coincide with the borders of the state. It’s a mission that can’t be duplicated or privatized.

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