There’s a silver lining in Scott Walker’s proposed $300M cut to the University of Wisconsin

The headline was an easy one to write: “Governor Scott Walker Seeks $300 Million in University Cuts…” But lost in the outrage over two years of funding cuts in the Badger State was a silver lining that will pay dividends for the University of Wisconsin’s crown jewel in Madison—as well as Wisconsin’s other public colleges—indefinitely into the future.

In the weeks leading up to Walker’s February 3 state budget address, the governor leaked his plan to cut the system’s budget by $300 million during 2016 and 2017. (The university system made up about 19 percent of the state’s overall spending in 2013-15.) The president of the system, Ray Cross, had sought an additional $95 million beyond the last budget, but the governor announced that he instead wants to reduce funding by $150 million per year for two years. The system would also have to expand its state-mandated tuition freeze for two years.

However, buried underneath that budget cut is a tool the governor is betting will allow the state’s universities to pull through the reduction in state funding. The governor proposes autonomy for Wisconsin’s public universities, creating a common-sense separation between UW-Madison and the state’s non-research colleges.

Walker’s proposal would make every member of the UW system a public authority—a designation that would allow the state’s universities to take bureaucratic control of their own operations. This would effectively wash away the state’s control over major decisions such as tuition rates, hiring and firing practices, employee compensation, purchasing goods and materials, and construction projects.

Employees of the UW system would no longer be state employees. Like the doctors and nurses of the university’s hospital in Madison, they would negotiate their contracts separately from the state’s otherwise restrictive bargaining process.

That isn’t the only major change that campuses would see. Federal and program revenues would no longer have to be deposited to the Wisconsin treasury. This would ensure that local money stays local and that the state would have little opportunity to pull funding that belongs to important campus programs.

In short, Wisconsin’s state universities would be able to set their own budgets when it comes to attracting the best educators and researchers from across the globe. While that impact would be limited in a time of cuts and increased fiscal scrutiny, autonomy would pay dividends in the future. Although the $57 million budget reduction would reduce the flexibility of spending at UW-Madison, the increased freedom would allow the school to continue on its research-intensive path of operation.

This isn’t the first time the debate over local campus autonomy has come up. In 2011, Walker and then-Madison chancellor Biddy Martin came forward with the New Badger Partnership—a plan to separate the state’s largest research institution (UW-Madison) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the 11 comprehensive universities that make up the UW system.

That proposal would have granted public authority status solely to UW-Madison—a tool that Martin went on record to say was key to allowing the university to absorb 2011’s budget cuts. In the free market, Martin suggested, autonomy was the foundation from which the school could compete with other private and public institutions.

“Like it or not, higher education is increasingly a market-driven sector,” she told the Capital Times. “While the rest of the world rushes to build universities of UW-Madison’s quality, we’re challenged in our efforts to preserve our quality and enhance it if shrinking state support isn’t combined with some new tools.”

Martin wasn’t the only UW official who saw the benefit of operating as a public authority. UW-Madison’s vice provost for teaching and learning, Aaron M. Brower, laid out the benefits of this autonomy back in 2011. His message—that additional freedom would allow the university to create a comprehensive spectrum of educational experiences and give students more educational resources—remains relevant today in light of Walker’s proposed plans for the UW system.

At its core, Walker’s proposal reflects a shift in public opinion—that higher education’s return on investment is no longer what it used to be.

A recent Pew Center study shows that a majority of Americans believe that college fails to provide students with an advantage commensurate with the cost of tuition. Three out of four people surveyed believe college is too expensive for Americans to afford. Walker’s policy changes—which effectively force Wisconsin’s universities to cut costs—are a reflection of that attitude.

A budget reduction of $150 million per year coupled with a tuition freeze would force administrators across the state to prove that college can once again be an affordable investment. It would also invite them to assess local efficiency and identify the major disciplines and research that provide the greatest opportunities for students. The budget cuts create an impetus for change at Wisconsin’s campuses. The new freedom granted by status as a public authority gives these schools the opportunity to act on it.

Walker’s most publicized piece of legislation—2011’s Act 10—did something similar for Wisconsin’s public K-12 schools. It gave school districts the autonomy to require employee contributions for health care and pension funds and to shop for more competitive insurance providers. As a result, many school districts were able to weather state funding cuts and restructure their administrative practices to increase efficiency.

Now, Gov. Walker is hoping that he can replicate this outcome for the state’s institutions of higher learning.

Walker’s proposed funding cuts present a short-term challenge that could have a long-term benefit for UW. With power shifting to local campuses, it will be up to system administrators to use their status as a public authority to create a greater service for the public they serve.

Lumping the state’s flagship research institutions with Wisconsin’s smaller comprehensive universities was never a pairing that made much sense. Now, as in neighboring Iowa and Michigan, the state’s biggest, most important campuses will be able to make the decisions that are best for their students at the local level as well as pursue the goals of greater research. Even with major funding cuts on the way, that’s something that, if done right, will benefit administrators, professors, and students for years to come.