Rethinking Public Universities for Today's Challenges

By September 15, 2011 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

All across the country, declining state support for public universities is prompting reassessments of traditional partnerships, while also presenting an opportunity to re-examine what it is that we as universities do, how we do it, and why we do it.

In Wisconsin, the prospect of continued deep cuts in general-fund support for the University of Wisconsin System led to calls for greater autonomy from state authority for the university. Would the state agree to cut some red tape in exchange for dwindling taxpayer support? The university maintained that if its institutions were freed from restrictive legislation—entering into a new and different partnership with the state—it would allow us to manage scarce resources more effectively and efficiently.

The legislature and governor agreed. As part of the 2011–13 state budget, the system achieved some long-sought flexibilities, including statutory changes in budgeting, financial management, personnel, and other areas. A number of public universities around the country have sought similar new arrangements in recent years.

In Wisconsin, however, the push for greater autonomy also had the governor and University of Wisconsin at Madison, the system’s flagship institution, advocating for its separation from the system to achieve that goal. The board of regents, system leadership, other chancellors, and many other stakeholders opposed this proposal. In the end, the state opted to keep the system together and provide all institutions in the system with greater flexibilities, as advanced in the system’s proposed Wisconsin Idea Partnership.

The results are the most significant set of changes we have seen since the University of Wisconsin System was created 40 years ago. Getting to this point required engagement from the board of regents and leadership at the system and campus levels, as well as broad public support from the business community and beyond.

Moving forward, as we operationalize the new flexibilities, we have the opportunity and the imperative to reassess relationships among the board, the system administration, the institutional leadership, and the state government.

Declining state support also puts new pressures on university leadership. One of the toughest, most pervasive issues for presidents and chancellors these days is the need to generate new revenues to meet higher demands for university seats and services. Those demands come at a time when states are supplying diminishing proportions of the budgets of public universities, and endowments at public and private colleges are slow in returning to historical growth levels.

The situation increases the complexity and importance of managing relations with a wide variety of supporters: university fund-raising foundations, other major donors, prospective donors, real-estate foundations, commercialization and licensing entities, corporate partners, philanthropic foundations, and the federal government, to cite just a few. In some ways, public college leadership is coming to resemble more closely private college leadership.

The situation also significantly strains universities’ relationship with a large source of support—our students and their families—as we are forced to go back, again and again, to tuition hikes to help fill in some of the deep holes resulting from the international recession and all the burdens on state and federal budgets. Then, in turn, we hear again from unhappy governors, as well as state and federal legislators, who have been contacted by constituents upset about higher tuition rates.

These changing pressures on chancellors and presidents must be recognized by boards when recruiting and selecting new campus leadership. Such leaders are called upon to assemble and engage in broad and diverse networks of constituencies—groups that board members can often help activate on behalf of the university.

The challenging economic climate and global competitive forces are propelling all of us, in higher education and elsewhere, to reconsider how we go about doing business. As we adapt and evolve, we must ask tough questions and look for unfamiliar answers—while our boards help us navigate the new world while staying true to our mission and holding fast to our commitment to quality.