UW System faces headwinds from Republican legislators, other challenges after Blank leaves

By: - October 13, 2021 6:30 am
Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in fall

Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in Madison, WI (CC by 2.0 generic)

When outgoing UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank leaves for Northwestern University this summer, the UW System and its most high profile leaders are likely to be new to the job as they continue to work against the prevailing trends of declining state support and demographic changes in Wisconsin. 

The UW System, currently under the leadership of interim President Tommy Thompson, is set to have a new president by spring 2022 and Blank’s replacement will start next summer. Both will need to deal with a hostile Republican-led Legislature cutting budgets and attempting to prevent the implementation of COVID-19 protections; a declining number of high school seniors graduating in Wisconsin every year and the broader challenges facing public universities across the country. 

“It’s a very challenging job,” Barry Burden, a political science professor at UW-Madison, says. “Setting aside the state government for the moment, it’s just a massive undertaking to lead such a large, complicated, decentralized university. Facing, I think, challenges that universities, especially public universities, haven’t faced in the past. Compounding all those difficulties is a state government that’s micromanaging the university from afar and limiting the resources available to the university.” 

The two new leaders — the most publicly visible voices for the state’s public universities — must find areas where they can work together for all of the system’s campuses, even though the interests of Madison and those of schools such as UW-Whitewater or UW-La Crosse often diverge, faculty members from across the state say.

“The two most prominent leadership positions in the system are going to be in flux at the same time so that means the Board of Regents will have to be finding new people to take over those important roles in more or less immediate succession,” says Nicholas Fleisher, a linguistics professor at UW-Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “The dynamic right now in the system is one where because of our state funding situation having gotten so much worse — and having no prospect of improvement in the near future — there’s a zero-sum mentality within the system.” 

There’s a tension between the interests of the UW-Madison chancellor and the UW System president, according Burden. The chancellor needs to think about what’s best for higher education in Wisconsin, but also needs to compete with large public research schools such as the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. 

“Madison is embedded in a system of campuses across the state that have different needs and interests than the Madison campus does,” Burden says. “I think it’s a challenge for the chancellor of the Madison campus and the president of the system to find common ground because the president is trying to manage different experiences. There are issues of parity, distribution of resources equitably across the state. The chancellor is certainly thinking about the whole state but also staying competitive in a national marketplace.”

But for Fleisher, as the Legislature has continued to attack Wisconsin’s universities through measures such as budget cuts and mandates against teaching topics such as critical race theory, the success of the Madison campuses under Blank has often come at the expense of the others. In recent years, the UW System Board of Regents changed a policy allowing UW-Madison to accept more out-of-state students if it also brings in more in-state students. The change has been a success for Madison, resulting in the largest freshman class ever, but it has also cut into the supply of tuition-paying students on other campuses. 

“There used to be a much lower cap on out-of-state enrollment in the system, UW-Madison successfully lobbied to change that cap if they accepted more in-state students,” Fleisher says. “That larger in-state enrollment comes at the expense of other UW system schools. At a time when the budgets of campuses are dependent on tuition dollars, that hurts other schools in the system.”

“I understand, from Blank’s perspective, why she would want to do that but those changes are detrimental to other schools in the system,” he adds.

Fleisher also says success at UW-Madison has tended to hide struggles at other campuses. 

“UW-Madison has been doing reasonably well under conditions of state-level austerity that are extremely damaging to other campuses in the system,” he says. “Madison’s health makes the problems more invisible and makes it harder to get them solved. Madison has ways to thrive under austerity that no one else has and when they do, that encourages the Legislature to keep the austerity coming because Madison’s doing okay.”

Blank is leaving for a private university that doesn’t have to answer to partisan legislators; Burden says those difficulties will be a major part of the next chancellor’s job. 

“When the state Legislature gets involved with censoring free speech or meddling with tenure protections or picking on faculty, it creates an environment that makes it more challenging for a chancellor,” he says. “Blank mentioned what was challenging for her was being able to make long-term plans and a vision for the future while dealing with the day-to-day fires that emerge. When the Legislature is investigating or nipping around at the heels of the university, it’s really hard for the chancellor and other leaders to take their eyes off those things.”

After the loud crash and burn of the first search for a new UW System president, the Board of Regents is set to undertake two high-profile recruitment efforts. Burden says he’s hopeful the next UW-Madison chancellor has a similar mix of experiences as Blank — who had served in the administrations of multiple presidents and spent years as a faculty member at multiple universities. 

Burden also says the current presidential search is a good sign that the chancellor search won’t be as polarizing as the search that failed last year, which was criticized for the search committee failing to include enough input from students and faculty.

“I think the regents have corrected course and the current search is being done more appropriately, they’ve appointed a search committee that has a better balance,” he says.
“The previous search was imbalanced and didn’t represent faculty or students in a fair way,” Burden says. “That was a new experience and the system got burned for it. It was a terrible, wasteful outcome. So I think they’re committed to doing it right this time around and that’s helpful for setting the stage.”

“The Madison chancellor has a special visibility and prominence so it’s more complicated and impactful,” he adds. “It’s sort of lucky we get to see the presidential search play out first.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.