Op Ed

UWM Is Suffering a Brain Drain

Talented faculty leaving. Business leaders and others should push for greater funding.

By - Jun 16th, 2018 02:27 pm
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UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, 600 E. Greenfield Ave. Photo courtesy of the City of Milwaukee Department of City Development.

UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, 600 E. Greenfield Ave. Photo courtesy of the City of Milwaukee Department of City Development.

InState Needs to Invest More in UWM” (Urban Milwaukee, April 12,2018), John Torinus writes in support of an improved capital budget for the university. From our vantage point as retired members from UW-Milwaukee’s Economics and Business faculty and administration, we hope that he and other supporters in the business community will escalate the urgency of their message. The business community should also expand the focus of concern beyond STEM and call for support of UWM’s wider array of university degree programming and research activity.

Long Tradition of Accomplishment is in Danger

For decades, the national academic community has recognized and respected UWM’s contributions to research. After 60 years of building toward and achieving excellence, UWM has recently been classified as a top tier Research 1 (R-1) institution by the Carnegie Foundation. This honor places it in the top 2 percent of all research universities.

UWM’s growth into a top-tier research university was envisioned from the early 1960s by both Republican and Democratic governors and educators. Excellence was demanded, jump-started by recruiting established professors from major universities along with very promising newly-minted PhDs. All were hired with competitive compensation in the expectation that they would successfully contribute to their discipline by engaging in academic research evaluated by their professional peers across the world. The standards used in the peer-review of research remain essential in building and maintaining a great university – one with scholars and graduate and undergraduate students working at the frontiers of knowledge in cutting-edge programs.

Unfortunately, despite the growing national awareness of the fine research, teaching and service work being performed on campus, UWM’s stakeholders are too silent while continuing budget strictures pose a grave threat to the future of the university. UWM is experiencing a severe loss of faculty as an ever-increasing number of competitive universities are cherry-picking top scholars. Since 2010, for example, the Physics department is down 24 percent, from 26 to 19 faculty. The story is the same in Biological Science, down from 38 to 26. The Economics department has lost 26 percent of its faculty; Educational Psychology 48 percent; History 27 percent. The losses are not limited to these few units; they are occurring throughout the university.

For the most part, the faculty who left UWM went to universities noted for their academic and research excellence. They include UCLA, Minnesota, Tufts, Williams, the University of Texas and Texas A&M, North Carolina, Ohio State, and Duke. Despite such indicators of excellence, UWM is simply without the financial resources to respond with competitive counter-offers, without being forced to leave some vacant positions unfilled.

Fortunately, UWM is able to fill some of those vacancies with bright, eager, newly-minted junior faculty. These replacements are early in their careers, well-educated and ambitious. They will teach and prove their ability to publish in the peer-reviewed publications of their profession. As they do their “market value” will grow, and soon the day will arrive when they too must decide either to stay at UWM or to leave for better opportunities elsewhere. Rather than being perceived as a place that is continuing its advance, UWM will serve as a respected farm team for other, better financed, research universities. In the longer term, the university will even lose that “distinction;” the flagging state support will continue to reduce research productivity and, with that, the loss of R-1 status.

What Wisconsin Loses When UWM Loses Research Faculty

As faculty numbers shrink, the special type of learning and discovery that undergraduate and graduate students enjoy at research universities like UWM becomes undermined as does the ability to place students at top graduate, law and medical schools, or of gaining employment with a major government agency, think tank, professional organization, corporation or business. These ingredients of upward mobility for many young Wisconsin citizens attending UWM are being lost.

As UWM suffers this brain drain of research faculty, Wisconsin loses a key engine of economic growth: the production of new knowledge and the capacity to understand, explain, and apply that knowledge produced here and elsewhere in the world. The impact of this loss extends beyond the research laboratories of the university: professionals who might have come to Wisconsin as employees of advanced manufacturing and high-technology firms will lose important professional complements at the university. Young people who aspire to professional lives will go elsewhere for a brighter future for themselves, and they will make their contribution there instead of here. All parts of the community will be the losers, including the business community.

UWM Needs More Than Money

In calling for increased financial support for UWM, Torinus notes how poorly UWM is treated relative to UW-Madison. But the excellence of UW-Madison must not be diluted so that UWM can survive. UWM should be rebuilt because it is critically important to do so in its own right. Both campuses are crucial to Wisconsin’s ability to compete in the world economy.

We also suggest that UWM’s supporters in the business community extend the scope of their support beyond those disciplines that are seemingly most complementary to business and economic growth. In the business world, many of the those who earn top positions thank their liberal arts education for their ability to think, analyze, and communicate.

Tinkering with issues of tenure and governance is as damaging to UWM’s future as is the financial maltreatment of UWM. The Regents’ new “business” model in which “political review” of research replaces “peer review” will further stifle economic growth, creativity, and innovation. These changes in academic management have combined with the budget cuts to place UWM at a serious competitive disadvantage in the fiercely competitive academic market for hiring and retaining faculty.

Not Too Late to Reinvest and Recover

After so many years of successful growth at UWM, the R-1 Carnegie ranking should underline the folly of dismantling this great state asset. It devalues the investment and expectations of past taxpayers, diminishes the lifework of dedicated faculty and staff, squanders the generosity of Milwaukee’s business leaders and philanthropists, and dims the prospects for students. All beneficiaries of this threatened institution should act now to demand that UWM’s budget more accurately reflect the high quality and importance of the work taking place on campus. It is not too late to rebuild UWM; but it will require significant state financial reinvestment to replace faculty lost to competition and to retain the coveted Carnegie Foundation R-1 designation.

William L. Holahan is Emeritus Professor and former Chair of the Department of Economics at the UW-Milwaukee. Charles O. Kroncke served as Professor and Associate Dean of Business at UW-Madison as well as Dean of the School of Business at UW-Milwaukee and the School of Management at UT-Dallas. From August 2003 to May 2004, they served on, and Holahan chaired, the UW-System Search and Screen Committee during the search for a UWM chancellor.  

Categories: Education

2 thoughts on “Op Ed: UWM Is Suffering a Brain Drain”

  1. Chris Mullin says:

    Really hope UWM can find the support it needs to keep top flight faculty, along with periodically updating its facilities. No reason the 2nd biggest university in the state, with its now top research designation should be thought of as a second class university to Madison. UWM needs more funding, plain and simple.

  2. Paul Schmitz says:

    An opinion like this also belongs in the Business Journal and should be shared through groups like MMAC and GMC. The business community should be pushing the governor and legiature on the value of a top university to our region.

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