Higher education in Wisconsin is at a critical cross-road. Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a significant change that could undo 40 years worth of effort spent building the University of Wisconsin System into a first-rate institution. Walker's plan would unhitch the flagship UW-Madison campus from the other 12 four-year UW campuses and the 13 two-year colleges. UW-Madison would have its own governing body and would be given authority to chart its own course.

To that proposal we say "hold your horses," Mr. Governor. There may be a better way to help UW-Madison and the entire UW System survive the jolt of your proposed $250 million reduction in state spending on higher education.

For background purposes:

The UW System was created in 1971 when the former UW campuses - including UW-Baraboo/Sauk County - were merged with the former Wisconsin State University campuses. The merger was intended to improve access and transferability, create efficiencies and reduce competition for resources between the two systems.

Today, the UW System is comprised of two doctoral research campuses (UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee), 11 four-year universities, 13 two-year liberal arts schools (including UW-Baraboo/Sauk County) and the UW-Extension, which has offices in all 72 counties. The UW System serves about 182,000 students.

The UW System is governed by the Board of Regents, an 18-member board of citizens appointed by the governor. The four-year campuses each has a chancellor overseeing their institutions, while a single chancellor oversees the 13 two-year campuses and UW-Extension. The chancellors report to the Board of Regents and UW System President Kevin Reilly.

UW-Madison always has been considered the crown jewel of the UW System, and rightfully so. It is a world-class institution known for cutting-edge research in a variety of fields. Its position atop the UW System pecking order will never be challenged.

However, the continued successes of UW-Madison should not come at the potential expense of the other parts of the UW System. It is with that point in mind that Reilly, the UW System president, has proposed an alternative to Gov. Walker's "New Badger Partnership" plan. Reilly calls his plan the "Wisconsin Idea Partnership."

According to the UW System website explaining the Wisconsin Idea Partnership http://www.wisconsin.edu/wip/:

The UW System is the result of the merger of the state's two public university systems in 1971. Former Governor Patrick Lucey initiated the merger to save taxpayer money. Looking back on that effort, he said, "It seemed to me that it was not appropriate to have two Boards of Regents competing with each other for state dollars, that it would make a lot more sense to have a single Board of Regents for the whole system."

After years of careful planning, the merger resulted in efficiency, collaboration, and the rise of one of the premier systems of higher education in the world. Separation of UW-Madison from the UW System would mean a return to a less cohesive approach to public higher education in the state, leading to increased competition among the UW campuses and wasteful duplication. Removing UW-Madison from the System will also be very costly in the near term.

We concur. Keeping the UW System unified - while still allowing UW-Madison some added autonomy - would be the more prudent move and would be less likely to give rise to the separate-and-distinct mentality that existed prior to the merger.

Baraboo resident Aural Umhoefer has some insight into the past that is enlightening. She began working at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County when it opened in 1968 - three years prior to the merger. She retired in 2002 after serving 22 years as dean.

"There was not the cooperation then that there is now," she said, recalling her early years at the campus. "There were problems with classes transferring, research cooperation, interlibrary loan among all the libraries. These are all things that were problems then, that are not problems now."

Current UW-Baraboo/Sauk County Dean Thomas Pleger has concerns about a split of the UW System. Drawing a parallel to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - which has been given greater independence from other state institutions and the right to set its own tuition - Pleger wonders whether an autonomous UW-Madison would turn its attention more to out-of-state students who pay significantly higher tuition rates than in-state students.

"It will serve less state students, it will become more exclusive and I would not be surprised to see less interest in Madison by our students," Pleger said.

And that would be unfortunate for UW-Baraboo, its students and the Wisconsin higher educational system.

We respect the governor's claim that the state must reduce its spending on higher education and other programs. But those reductions do not need to include splintering of the UW System.

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