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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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UW can have cake, eat it too

Perhaps I went too far.

When I argued yesterday that accessibility should take
precedence at UW System schools — although educational quality should be the
focus at Madison — I neglected one very simple possibility: UW-Madison can
still have its cake and eat it too. It’s just uncertain whether public funding
will play a role.

Chancellor John Wiley has made it clear from day one the
Legislature has not paid its “fair share.” But during a sit-down interview
with The Badger Herald, he said only a few specific legislators have actively
attempted to derail UW’s search for funding.

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“There are about three or four who get up in the
morning and say, ‘What can we hit the university with today?'” Wiley said.

Count Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, among that group. Of
course, he doesn’t see it as any sort of vendetta or attack — just advocating
on behalf of students and taxpayers. “Students are certainly first and
should be considered first instead of, as they usually do, the administrative
end protecting their own,” Nass said in an interview. “They need to
look critically at themselves, and they just refuse to do that.”

Mr. Nass was one of the most vocal critics of UW-Madison’s
decision to stand by Kevin Barrett; he’s used every opportunity to point out
the university’s more expensive failures and will scrutinize UW-Madison
requests every chance he can. Needless to say, the depictions of Mr. Nass have
not been flattering. Former mayor and UW alumnus Paul Soglin has called him
“an embarrassment to Wisconsin,” while an Isthmus article depicted
him as a marionette for his research assistant Mike Mikalsen. But there is no
utility in building up Mr. Nass only to tear him down. Instead of letting the
consensus opinion completely write off his position, let’s consider: Is there
any validity to his criticism of this university?

Yes, but it’s unlikely to force UW-Madison to budge.

Mr. Nass’s point is fairly basic: Why give money to system
schools when they, especially UW-Madison, waste too much of the funds they’re
given on “unnecessary items?” The problem lies in determining what
those items are.

Administrative costs are one of Mr. Nass’s primary targets.
In the proposed Assembly budget, Republicans suggested reducing the amount of
requested funding for UW System administration by nearly $4 million by cutting
three of Mr. Wiley’s personal assistants and a number of vice chancellor
positions systemwide. Mr. Nass believes the fact of the system’s financial
problems lies in those unnecessary positions and the refusal to consolidate
those functions.

Mr. Wiley argued that the items of waste are limited to
relatively small points such as multiple newspaper subscriptions. That may be,
but I challenge him or UW-Madison at large to defend the position of vice
provost of diversity and climate and justify the utility of that office, given
that it was vacant for almost a year without adversely affecting the
educational quality of the university.

But Mr. Nass may have Mr. Mikalsen to blame for revealing
his hand and exposing their complete ignorance on what the point of the
university system is in the first place. When citing the argument that
UW-Madison is an “economic engine” of the state, Mr. Mikalsen said
that the university explains away the lack of viable employment for
undergraduates with non-professional majors by saying they provide a liberal
arts education as well. According to Mr. Mikalsen, “You can’t have it both
ways!”

Wrong. The university can and should have it both ways. After
all, it is primarily an institution of higher learning, and education for the
sake of education isn’t exactly worthless. It may be to legislators like Mr.
Nass who look for a numerical value at the end of every state action, but the
value of pure education itself should not dismissed simply because it doesn’t
immediately create more jobs.

Perhaps Mr. Nass doesn’t truly understand the full utility
of the UW System. And maybe system administrators are overlooking a redundancy
of offices and needless positions. But it’s where the two extremes represented
by Messrs. Wiley and Nass agree that provides some hope for our university.

When asked how important private funding is to the future of
the university, Mr. Wiley proceeded to draw a small triangular graph that he
had obviously worked out before. In it, he plotted UW-Madison according to the
three axes of tuition, state support and private investment. After putting the
university somewhere in between all three, he makes a few plots of where
UW-Madison will likely move to in two years. Then six. Eight, 16 and onward,
eventually taking into account a whole century of funding change. What is
clearly visible is a trend curving directly away from state funding and toward
privatization.

And Mr. Nass agrees with this trajectory. To him, if they
can justify the funds to private donors and those willing to make gifts, then
all the better for the student and the taxpayer.

And the trend is growing among public schools. The
University of Michigan, in order to be freed of its own legislative stumbling
block, has considered going completely private. South Carolina gave its public
colleges the option to privatize as well. While this option may not work so
well for smaller schools with minor endowments, it certainly has had some role
in turning Michigan into a “public Ivy.”

And perhaps this university should follow suit. But to do
so, we have to commit fully in this direction. While one hopes that state
funding doesn’t have a precipitous drop in the near future, it also isn’t worth
it to stretch Wisconsin’s finances even thinner if we can make our own way
toward financial and academic independence.

Let us hope we find that way sooner rather than later.

?

Jason Smathers ([email protected]) is a senior
majoring in history and journalism.

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