Why UWM Matters
It could be the key to transforming Wisconsin’s economy, but state leaders don’t seem to realize it.
Last week’s surprise decision by UW-Milwaukee chancellor Michael Lovell to accept the job of Marquette University’s president was touted as good news for MU and for Milwaukee (retaining a man acclaimed as one of the city’s top leaders), but it raised troubling questions about the future of UWM. While the university has made major strides in the last 15 years, it is nowhere near the institution it needs to be, which is bad news not just for this city, but for the entire state.
For most of Wisconsin’s history, the pre-eminence of UW-Madison, and the complete unimportance of UW-Milwaukee (which didn’t exist until the 1950s) made sense. Wisconsin was a manufacturing state centered in its biggest city, Milwaukee, where most workers were blue collar and high-school educated workers. Madison was a small-town grove of academia, dominated by its nationally-ranked university, and couldn’t have been further removed from the private sector.
Indeed, outreach to the wider world by UW-Madison professors was to the state government also located in their city. The “Wisconsin Idea,” as it was dubbed, was a model to the nation of how leading academics could create bold new ideas for government. The progressive income tax, workman’s compensation, utility regulation and other innovations made Wisconsin a “laboratory for democracy” whose civic inventions were adopted by other states and even the federal government.
But nowadays, most states and countless nations seek to emulate Silicon Valley and connect academia and the private sector, to patent and market the research and development work of top-flight professors and university graduates. But Wisconsin lags behind in that effort, because its major university is in Madison and its leading private-sector city is Milwaukee.
To accommodate those new students, Santiago created a real estate foundation that has built two new dormitories along the Milwaukee River, the $20 million RiverView Hall and the $50 million Cambridge Commons. Today about 40 percent of the student body is made up of commuters, but 15 years ago the figure was 65 to 70 percent, Luljak estimates.
Santiago convinced the chief executives of five top local businesses to help head up a capital campaign: Keith Nosbusch (Rockwell Automation), Ed Zore (Northwestern Mutual Life), Gale Klappa (We Energies), Jim Ziemer (Harley-Davidson), Dennis Kuester (former CEO of what was then Marshall & Ilsley Corp.). The campaign raised $125 million, an unprecedented level of private funds for UWM.
Mostly under Santiago and Lovell, UWM has also undertaken a long list of building projects that have expanded its footprint in Milwaukee, including the Kenilworth Building on Prospect Avenue (total cost about $65 million), the purchase and renovation of the old Columbia Hospital (about $40 million), the School of Freshwater Sciences on E. Greenfield Ave. on the lake ($53 million), the Zilber School of Public Health in the Brewery project on 10th and State streets ($12.5 million), the Kenwood Interdisciplinary Research Center across from the student union ($80 million) and, out in Wauwatosa near the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Innovation Accelerator ($11 million) and Innovation Campus Integrated Research Center ($75 million).
As these names suggest, UWM has put increasing emphasis on research. Lovell has touted partnerships with local companies like Johnson Controls, GE Healthcare and Rockwell Automation, and the gold medal UWM won from the Edison Awards for its partnership with Johnson Controls for research on advanced energy storage.
Certainly, UWM has made progress on that front. Its research expenditures increased from $23 million in 2000-2001 to $71.2 million in 2010-11 – more than tripling. But UWM still ranked 166th among research institutions nationally, while mighty UW-Madison ranked third that year, with 1.03 billion in research spending.
Santiago had a little success getting the legislature to allocate more money to UWM, but it remains a financial backwater compared to UW-Madison. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, the state appropriation per full time student at UWM is just $3,876, compared to $9,003 for UW-Madison.
This dismal funding makes it difficult for UWM to compete for top faculty. A 2010 UW System study found UWM salaries were 13 percent lower (for assistant professors) and 29 percent lower (for full professors) compared to other universities nationally. But Gov. Scott Walker’s push to require all public employees to contribute more to their benefits compounded the problem. As a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report found, an employee earning $50,000 now had to contribute an additional $4,228 to their pension and health care, an 8.5 percent loss in take-home pay, while someone earning $125,000 had to contribute an additional $8,428, a 6.7 percent reduction in take-home pay. UWM estimated the average cut for its professors at 8 percent in a March 2012 story in Milwaukee Magazine. “We are losing some of the most productive and experienced employees,” causing “irreparable harm” to UWM, Lovell told the magazine.
The cuts were justified by Walker and others with the claim that workers in the private sector had less benefits, but UWM’s main competition is with public universities.
The underfunding of UWM may partly reflect the antipathy toward Milwaukee from outstate residents. Indeed, Walker ran against Tom Barrett in the recall election warning voters that Barrett could turn Wisconsin into Milwaukee. More importantly, UW-Madison has always had more clout in the Capitol. But the situation is far worse now, because Milwaukee is so under-represented in the legislature. Lovell was reportedly miffed by the legislature’s outrage over an audit showing the UW-System had significant cash reserves. In fact, as a follow-up audit found, in the case of UWM less than 3 percent of the money cited in the first audit was true cash reserves. “Our local delegation didn’t support us,” longtime UWM history professor Margo Anderson told the JS. “It was devastating.”
The reality is that this state needs Milwaukee. If Wisconsin is to successfully compete with other states economically, Milwaukee must play a central role in that effort. But who will champion Milwaukee? Some Democratic legislators will try to, but they have little power in Madison.
Milwaukee’s business leaders clearly understand that connections between academia and business are crucial; it underpins the idea of turning this city into a center for water technology. But that idea and any of the others touted as a way to transform Milwaukee’s economy depend upon having a critical mass of smart people and innovative research, which inevitably depends upon having a formidable university.
At this point, only business leaders will be listened to and can make this argument effectively with Republicans in Madison. But will they? If not, here’s prediction: UWM, Milwaukee and probably the entire state will continue to fall behind their peers when it comes to creating a new economy.
-It’s ironic to see compensation for the state’s professors plummeting even as CEO salaries rise ever higher into the stratosphere. Business leaders defend such compensation as necessary to attract the best talent, even as they support a governor who is leaving our universities at a huge disadvantage when it comes to attracting top-flight professors.
-Journal Sentinel writer Dan Bice’s latest column is another update — and a very interesting one — on the John Doe probe. So why didn’t it run in print? “I believe that was Tom Koetting‘s decision,” Bice replied to my email. Koetting replied as follows: “The blog allows Dan to do a deeper dive on items that may have less interest to a general print audience. The piece received good play online and found its audience.” But it would have surely gotten more audience if it also ran in print. I might add that it reads like a column, not like a short blog.
Update 1:40 April 1: An earlier version of this story used an estimate of the loss of take-home pay for professors from a Milwaukee Magazine story which was called into question by readers. I agree and replaced this with figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.