All across the country, declining state support for public universities is prompting reassessment of what it is that we as universities do, how we do it, and why we do it. Significantly, this comes at a time when most experts agree that more Americans must attain a college credential if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
In Wisconsin, deep cuts in general-fund support for the University of Wisconsin (UW) System have prompted us to reconsider how we can better align our resources to meet the needs and interests of the state and its people. It involves not just doing more with less, but fundamental changes to our planning, procedures, and programs.
The UW System’s Board of Regents—our governing body—is charged with overseeing these changes. As with many of our peers, it is our responsibility to help navigate the new world, while at the same time ensuring that our universities stay true to our missions, protecting cherished ideals like academic freedom and holding fast to our commitment to quality.
There is no shortage of big issues that governing boards must pay attention to these days: Nurturing the culture of the academy, including academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance; ensuring financial responsibility, transparency, and accountability; providing a relevant and responsive program array; helping to grow our state’s economy while ensuring our students are prepared for careers; and the overarching importance of fulfilling our promise to families who look forward to sending their students to our institutions.
To help us set our course going forward, the UW System has recently embarked on a new strategic planning process, the first in almost a decade. There are vital questions we must address, and the answers will impact us for a generation to come. Stubbornly sticking to the status quo just because it’s familiar won’t work. At the same time, we cannot immediately adopt significant changes to past practices without inclusive and open discussion.
From the start of my service on the UW System board, I pledged to be an “engaged listener.” Over the past three years, I have had the opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas with students, families, alumni, community leaders, business people, legislators, and so many others who care deeply about our university system and its future. I believe it is vital that members of our governing boards are accessible, engaged, and open to considering change, particularly at a time when the purpose and performance of our institutions are under heightened scrutiny.
Rapidly evolving technologies are increasingly standard on our campuses—things like flipped classrooms, web-based conferencing, learningmanagement systems, and MOOCs—and they impact both teaching and learning. These new technologies raise important issues that we, as a board, need to consider, including infrastructure and the new skill sets and training needed to effectively deploy this technology.
In the UW System, we are also venturing into new territory with our Flexible Option program, a delivery model in which students progress toward their degree by demonstrating mastery over competency assessments, rather than amassing credits through more traditional course-based activity. This innovative program—and the innovative thinking behind it—has the strong support of our board.
In adapting to new fiscal realities, administrative changes are sometimes necessary. Our 13 two-year UW Colleges campuses, for example, recently announced a significant administrative reorganization. Instead of having one dean at each campus, the institutions will now be clustered into four geographical regions, with a single dean overseeing each region. Throughout this process, the goal—and a key priority of board members—has been safeguarding our students’ high-quality educational experience.
Like our counterparts around the nation, we face significant challenges and difficult decisions. The important role of governing boards in setting the agenda cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Throughout our decision making, we must be wise, deliberative, and courageous. And we must remember that as we deal with the present, our responsibility is to look to the future.