During the past year, University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly has led the UW System in the face of $300 million of funding cuts and budgetary lapses. The Badger Herald sat down with Reilly to discuss the impact of these trends and possible solutions being offered. Here are the highlights in part two of a two-part series.
The Badger Herald: Are you worried about the cost of tuition reaching a breaking point?
Kevin Reilly: I’m very worried. I think the public is clearly more and more concerned about that. I think that’s got to, again, be part of the public dialogue with the Legislature, with the governor.
We may want to say for instance, well, if you can reinvest in the university to this amount, we can hold tuition down to this amount. … And we got, I think, to have that conversation explicitly with the public and with the state saying this is to some extent a tradeoff. The more public dollars we are willing to invest, the lower tuition can be.
People, I think, more and more, understand the value of higher education that they’ll need to have some level of it to have a decent life in the 21st century. But partly because more and more people understand that, the public is more and more worried that they won’t be able to afford it.
And again, we need the help from students and their families in particular to say to elected officials we want you to reinvest in the university and help us hold down the tuition so that more of our sons and daughters can do this, and can do it without accumulating very large levels of crippling debt.
BH: Do you think the UW System is falling behind in its ability to retain faculty due to the funding problems?
KR: I worry a lot about that. We have lost some very good people. Do I think we’ve lost a critical mass of people to date, so that the quality has been damaged in a major way? No. Am I very worried that if current trends continue as they are, that would happen? Yes, I’m very worried about that.
The reputations of universities takes a long time to build, and once you lose them, it takes a very long time to get them back.
One of the things that’s still true, if you … say you’re from the University of Wisconsin, people inevitably say, “What a great university,” or “What a great university system you have in Wisconsin.”
We want to keep that ability and part of that is to compensate our faculty and staff adequately. And we’re not asking to be at the top of any of the comparable groups. We like to be at least at the median and we’re not.
We’re falling behind farther and farther, and over time, if that trend does not get reversed, we will have a really damaging loss of talent out of the system. So we got to find a way to get adequate pay and compensation to our people.
BH: Would you support revising Policy F-50, the policy defining the legal aspects of administering university segregated fees to give more power to student governments?
KR: We’re in conversation now with all the student governments about that and we’re getting, what I would characterize, as a mixed message. Some of them think we really need to look at that again. We did a total overhaul of it five years ago.
Some of them are saying no it works pretty well on this campus and part of that difference, I think, always goes to who are the people involved in any campus, what’s the personal relationship like between the chancellor and student government leaders, what level of trust is there.
So we are looking at that, actively. … We’ll continue to talk about it and look at where we might want to go. We’re trying to figure if there’s some consensus on what the students want in that regard.
BH: Where do you see the UW System 10 years down the road?
KR: Well, I think, if we’re lucky, we’ll be seen as much more of a core economic engine for the state and similarly our peers across the country will be seen that way. … This country is going to win the international economic competition not in the blue collar trade side. It’s going to win it in the knowledge economy side. And if it is going to win it, universities have to be more essential to doing it.
I think we’ll be in a situation where we will be serving many more adult students who will come in and out of the university more regularly to get additional skills because part of what is happening now, and it will only accelerate is that the skills, the knowledge that’s required for any given job gets out of date.
And you need to combat it some way to get those skills and knowledge upgraded, updated. I think we’ll see many more partnerships between the university and outside entities to do that retraining. So I’m optimistic in that sense about the role of the universities in the United States.
So, the trick over the next 10 years for us will be how do we evolve the higher education system to keep pace with all the developments that are going on in other parts in the world, in places like China where I’ve been, in places like India, in places like Brazil, more and more of those countries are investing in their higher education systems to build them up.
They’re not disinvesting. So until our political leaders wake up to that fact, we will slip farther behind as a country, I’m afraid.
We’ve got to say OK, higher education again is going to be part of what keeps our economy competitive and in the long run keeps our national security sound.
We’ve got to have an economy that chugs along at a pace we can get it to do everything we need to have it do and higher education will only be more central part of that.