Can Ray Cross Reposition the UW System?
Legislators see it as a Madison-centered liberal redoubt. Maybe it needs a stronger base in Milwaukee.
Ray Cross’ stated willingness to resign as president of the University of Wisconsin if the GOP-controlled legislature and Gov. Walker don’t relent on the $300 million cut to his budget demonstrates just how much he needs to reposition the university in strategic terms.
Instead of being a target of Republicans, the system should be viewed as the state’s greatest asset. But Republican legislators look at the system as Madison-centric and as a bastion of left-wing opposition to where they want to take the state. UW – Madison is a world-class university, but it has done the system no favors by largely ignoring the needs of most of the state – where most of the votes lie.
With the exception of exporting its graduates and its involvement statewide in agri-business, the boundaries of UW – Madison are largely the boundaries of Dane County.
Some departments at the Madison campus may be centrist, such as engineering, business and medicine, but most of the kool aid imbibed and poured by its faculty is the bluest of blue.
That may work when Democrats are in power, but it is a recipe for major opposition when they are not. In reality, governors and legislatures of both persuasions have been tough on university budgets for couple of decades.
Ergo, from a marketing and political perspective, the university has done a poor job of strategic positioning.
When Katherine Lyall was president as the university entered the 21st Century, she made huge strides in repositioning the system by staging four economic summits. It was a brilliant move. She acknowledged that the university had a huge role to play in then prosperity of citizens across the state.
She knew where the votes were – outside of Madison. She knew that “innovation economy” played to university strengths.
She still got beat up in the budget process, mainly because unmanaged health costs kept crowding out other state priorities, as they do today. But she was on the right track toward a better value proposition to offer to voters and legislators. Her university of the future was still about education and graduates, but also about job and wealth creation.
So, put on your strategic positioning hat, and let’s help Ray Cross out of the penalty box. He’s a fine man, and he doesn’t deserve the brickbats he is getting from all sides. To get the dialog going, let’s hear your strategic thoughts that could better connect the system to the hearts and minds of citizens and legislators of both parties. Here are some that I have elicited from thinkers across the state:
- Move the office of the president from the Van Hise ivy tower on the Madison campus to Milwaukee to make a stronger connection to the business hub of the state. There’s open UWM space right downtown. The present disconnect of the System from the business community is a major economic disadvantage.
- Reorganize the system’s 26 campuses into regional groupings. Each would speak with a powerful voice to their home base legislators. Lobby the heck out of them in their back yards, where they listen. Economic development works from the ground up at the regional level better than top down from Madison. In short, organize to where the votes are. The last UW reorganization was more than four decades ago.
- Get serious about making UW – Milwaukee the equivalent of Michigan State in tandem with U – Michigan. UW – Madison can fend for itself. It has more than $6 billion in off-balance sheet assets that aren’t tapped enough. Like Stanford and MIT, it has generous mega-rich donors. UW – Milwaukee operates on a shoe strong amidst its great ambitions. Three of its scheduled buildings just got shoved out of the biennium capital budget. With the states biggest poverty problems in its region, it deserves disproportionate, not pro-rata, support.
- Convene a Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of the UW System to apply some tough love to its sprawling offerings of majors and courses and to the myriads of “centers” that have minimal impact on the state.
- Own up to the brain drain of more than 10,000 college graduates per year, including those lost on a net basis through the Minnesota reciprocity program. From a pretty strong entrepreneurship foundation at some campuses, put full weight behind the creation of a startup economy. That’s where the hot jobs will be created to keep our kinds and grandkids here. UW’s foundations could make investments in that arena, as UWM Foundation already has.
- To reclaim credibility in financial management, follow the lead of most university systems in the country and produce rigorous set of consolidated financial statements. (Include the recent $250 million UW Hospital investment in Illinois.) Most of the controversial reserves are at UW – Madison, not the other campuses, as consolidated statements would show.
- Deal with the ancient issues of tenure and shared governance with faculty in the context of the Blue Ribbon Commission. It’s time for some innovative thinking on those major topics.
- Tackle the related issues of soaring tuition and student debt head on. Again, there are many creative financiers in the state (many UW grads), who could come up with fresh strategies to reduce the burdens of students and parents in their quests for college educations.
The UW brand has much strength, partly because another former UW leader, Donna Shalala, challenged conventional wisdom to prove that Badger athletics could operate on the same high place as UW academics.
She was a strategic marketing genius. So was Lyall. Your turn, President Cross.
Are there other ideas out there that will help him get UW System back to the high ground?
John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.