Is the UW's New Badger Partnership good for business?

Breakups are always hard, and UW-Madison's request for a split from the rest of the UW System through the proposed New Badger Partnership has evoked passions worthy of an epic love affair. Of course, in every breakup, friends are asked to take sides, and one might fairly ask whose side Madison's and Wisconsin's business communities should be on.

That businesses have a rooting interest in the success of UW-Madison and a natural sympathy for UW Chancellor Biddy Martin's call for greater flexibility and freedom from state regulations is easy to understand.

And let's face it, the importance of UW-Madison to the economic health of the state can't be understated.

A recent report conducted by Madison's NorthStar Economics concluded that UW-Madison's economic impact on Wisconsin is $12.4 billion per year and that for every tax dollar invested in the university, $21.05 in state economic activity results. According to the report, the university, as well as its affiliated organizations and start-up companies, also help support more than 128,000 jobs and $614 million in state tax revenue.

In a story about the report that was published on UW-Madison's official website, Martin stressed the integral role the university plays in Wisconsin's economy, and hinted at the danger the UW faces if the status quo is preserved.

"The work and workforce that are developed at UW-Madison have concrete benefits for virtually every part of Wisconsin at a time when the state is faced with serious economic challenges," said Martin. "Preserving UW-Madison as a talent magnet and a driver of the state's economy is more critical today than ever before."

That sounds like the kind of bland proclamation that could emanate from almost any organization's official PR wing, but couched within those words is what partisans on both sides of the controversy over the New Badger Partnership would likely see as a bold statement – namely, that radical changes in how the UW conducts its business are needed to preserve its vitality. The New Badger Partnership would establish UW-Madison as a public authority "free of most of the rules and regulations that apply to traditional executive branch agencies." Under the plan, the university would also no longer be part of the UW System.

A better business model?

Of course, it's not hard to find common ground among UW-Madison, the UW System, and the state's UW campuses when it comes to their respective operational structures. They all want more flexibility and freedom from state regulations, and see greater control over their own affairs as vital in the face of impending massive state budget cuts – in fact, these are goals that business leaders across the state would no doubt enthusiastically support.

But how that's accomplished, whether through Martin's New Badger Partnership or the UW System's competing Wisconsin Idea Partnership, is a matter of profound debate.

Supporters of Martin's proposal abound within the university and Madison's business community.

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce (GMCC) recently took a position in favor of granting UW-Madison the public authority status Martin is seeking. According to GMCC President Jennifer Alexander, the flexibility and greater autonomy Martin is asking for are things that all businesspeople should support.

"Imagine as a business owner if you couldn't reward your stars, if you're not able to set your price point, if you're not able to find ways to reduce costs; imagine trying to run a business that way," said Alexander. "It's a very different time, which calls for different things, and I think with UW-Madison, we have to protect that vitality."

Alexander said the uniqueness of UW-Madison sets it apart, and makes Martin's proposal a good bet. "UW-Madison's research expenditures surpass $1 billion. By comparison, the next highest amount in the UW System is UW-Milwaukee at $68 million. So UW-Madison is different, and I'm not saying that the rest of the universities shouldn't have flexibility, but let's make sure that UW-Madison maintains its vitality and health. The competitive field that it's dealing with is other research campuses across the country, and to really be able to compete on a national level, you need the best faculty, resources, and funding."

"Imagine as a business owner if you couldn't reward your stars, if you're not able to set your price point, if you're not able to find ways to reduce costs; imagine trying to run a business that way. "It's a very different time, which calls for different things, and I think with UW-Madison, we have to protect that vitality." Jennifer Alexander, president, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce

One reason why businesses should be concerned about the good of the university, of course, is that it's a training ground for many of their best workers – and, in many ways, a leader in economic development.

"I think practically [speaking], businesspeople view UW-Madison as one of their providers of future employees," said Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park. "They want this university to continue to be a world-class university, to continue to attract the best and brightest students who ultimately move into the workforce of the Wisconsin business community.

"I think another practical sort of angle to this is that most businesspeople are proud of what the university has accomplished on behalf of the state of Wisconsin. It's become sort of a symbolic example of what an institution of higher education can accomplish in the area of research, technology transfer, commercialization, and academic accomplishment, and so when people think about Wisconsin and businesspeople talk about Wisconsin to their colleagues across the country and around the world, UW-Madison is certainly on the forefront of that.

"We want to continue to extend that tradition, and I think it's pretty clear that with declining state public resources and enhanced or additional constraints from state government, that the future of UW-Madison as a world-class university is threatened, and that should be a major concern to businesspeople around the state."

Dissenting voices

Of course, the New Badger Partnership also has its skeptics. David Giroux, executive director of communications and external relations for the UW System, said there's much to admire about the proposal, but that seeking to improve the fortunes of UW-Madison by breaking up the UW System simply doesn't make sense.

"Let's separate the original New Badger Partnership from the current version that's represented in the governor's budget," said Giroux. "Originally, the New Badger Partnership was about flexibility. That was the word used to describe what UW-Madison needs to succeed – more flexibility in construction, more flexibility in purchasing goods and services, more flexibility in being able to manage its own affairs. That version of the New Badger Partnership won widespread support among our Board of Regents, among all the other UW chancellors, and among the business community.

"More recently, and really only in the last few months, the word has shifted from flexibility to autonomy, and the shifted rhetoric is really significant. Now the argument seems to be from the people supporting this that only complete separation from every other UW campus and complete separation from the state can save UW-Madison, and I think there are a lot of people in the business community – certainly in the university community, even right here on the UW-Madison campus – who look at that new claim with a healthy amount of skepticism."

Giroux said he believes that the best tack is to give all UW campuses the same operational flexibilities – an idea that's reflected in the Wisconsin Idea Partnership. But he claims that to allow UW-Madison to break away from the UW System would simply create the kind of poisonous environment that has existed in the past.

"The history tells us that the system was created after decades of increasing and intensifying competition between what was then the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Universities," said Giroux. "At that time, the University of Wisconsin included multiple campuses. The UW Board of Regents had created the spinoff satellite campuses Milwaukee and Green Bay, several other places, and then we had the Wisconsin State University campuses, which were growing, and there was talk of creating a second law school.

"There was no rhyme or reason, and there was no coordination at all. They tried establishing a coordinating committee between the systems that had absolutely no teeth, was completely ineffective, and governor after governor after governor grew increasingly frustrated until finally in 1971 a merger was created. Since then, all the campuses have grown."

"What is it that UW-Madison has wanted to do these 40 years that it has been unable to do because it's part of a system, not because of its affiliation with the state and not because of those onerous state laws that apply uniformly to every campus in the system? Specifically, what has this governing board done to hold them back?" David Giroux, executive director of communications and external relations, UW System

Giroux does acknowledge the uniqueness of UW-Madison when it comes to its role in research and economic development, but says that's hardly an argument for separation.

"Here's the rhetorical response to that," said Giroux. "What is it that UW-Madison has wanted to do these 40 years that it has been unable to do because it's part of a system, not because of its affiliation with the state and not because of those onerous state laws that apply uniformly to every campus in the system? Specifically, what has this governing board done to hold them back?

"Have we inhibited their growth in research? Well, the numbers would seem to indicate otherwise. Have we held back construction on the UW-Madison campus? Well, I can look out my office and I can count the number of cranes that are up today, and one would wonder what else could possibly be built here."

For his part, Bugher downplays the threat to the other UW System campuses and claims that the New Badger Partnership has largely been mischaracterized.

"The notion of a split with the UW System has become a bit of a misnomer," said Bugher. "I have a background in state government … and this proposal is really an operating agreement between the state government and UW-Madison. It's really in some ways mischaracterized as a split, because I think personally the comprehensive campuses will see absolutely no difference in the relationship they have with UW-Madison the day after this bill is signed or into the future, so the notion that the comprehensive campuses are going to be set adrift and somehow isolated and marginalized because of this proposal, I think is just wrong."

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