As you're no doubt aware, this spring Governor Walker and former University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin proposed splitting UW-Madison off from the University of Wisconsin System.

The plan was controversial, but it also was lost in the other contentious measures pushed through state government this spring.

What you may not know is that the governor is currently assembling a task force to examine the structure of the UW System into the future. In all likelihood, the suggestion that UW-Madison and the UW System would be better off separate will resurface.

Many advocates of this idea - including the governor and some members of the Legislature - don't seem to fully understand the history of the UW System. Before discussing a drastic measure that would split up the System, we should make some effort to understand why the System was formed to begin with.

The UW System is actually the product of merging two former systems in 1971: The University of Wisconsin campuses (including Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Parkside, Extension and the majority of the two-year campuses) with the former Wisconsin State University campuses (Oshkosh, Superior, Stevens Point, La Crosse, Whitewater, Stout, River Falls, Platteville, and the two-year campuses at Richland, Fond du Lac and Barron County).

Some proponents of the UW-Madison split argue that Madison was at one time separate from the rest of the campuses, existing as a stand-alone campus and that the 1971 merger somehow harmed Madison.

The reality is that prior to 1971, the University of Wisconsin, based in Madison, was a cluster of campuses and Extension outreach services. If one reads the history of UW-Madison, UW-Extension and the UW Colleges (the two-year campuses), it is clear that Madison created these off-site services and campuses in order to fulfill the Wisconsin Idea: The notion that the borders of the university should be the borders of the state.

In the 1960s, UW-Madison began to focus more intensively on research and increased its pursuits of federal research funding. Fortunately, the Extension outreach services and the then-satellite campuses helped Madison to grow and to develop its research potential. Several histories of UW institutions reference the importance of UW-Madison's satellite campuses in its growth and service to the state.

In 1971, the UW System created an even greater opportunity for collaboration and sharing of public resources in order to meet the needs of Wisconsin. The merger of the Wisconsin State University campuses with the University of Wisconsin campuses and Extension resulted in a rich, integrated tapestry of higher education institutions offering opportunities for students and services for citizens.

Today, UW-Extension outreach programming is located in all 72 counties and on all 26 campuses. The UW System enrolls more than 182,000 students annually and produces more than 30,000 degrees each year. UW-Madison and the 25 other UW campuses share library resources through an integrated library system. There is now one application form for all 26 campuses and an online application process. Online courses and programs are centrally accessible through a UW System eCampus web portal, many faculty and staff collaborate on research and teaching across the system, and there is a single Board of Regents and System administration that helps to coordinate and oversee programming and policies across the System.

In addition to improving collaboration and services, the UW System has grown in stature and reputation nationally. It is a system that is recognized throughout the world and is the envy of most states. Additionally, UW-Madison has achieved world prominence in its research reputation and has achieved some of its highest rankings since the formation of the UW System.

I believe it is worthwhile to look to the future and to think about current structures and possible future evolution of the System. The Legislature recently granted the UW System increased flexibilities to become more nimble and entrepreneurial, which is an excellent start.

Thomas Pleger is the dean of UW-Baraboo/Sauk County. He earned his bachelor's degree at UW-La Crosse and his master's and doctorate at UW-Madison.

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(1) comment

Noel Radomski
Noel Radomski

This is a timely and interesting article. One issue which wasn't discussed, but which shouldn't be ignored, is the decision in 1965 to seperate Extension from the (then) University of Wisconsin (what is today called UW-Madison). The original idea was that faculty would engage in research, instruction, and then translate their findings directly to people off-campus. Initially it was with faculty driving or taking the train across WI directly to farmers, factory workers, etc. It then evolved into the creation of what today are the UW Colleges. My question is whether the decision made in the mid-1960's, prior to the 1971 merger of the UW and the WSU campuses, needs to be revisited so as to speed the translation and the social/economic development from all today's UW campuses. That vision and concept is significantly different than what we have today with UW Extension and UW Colleges over here and the other UW campuses (UW-Miilwaukee, UW-Madison, etc.) over there.

Noel Radomski

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