The recent buzz about UW-Madison’s possible separation from the UW System has generated significant negative reactions. In a move that has been seen by some as an attempt by Gov. Scott Walker to politicize public education, it is not surprising that students and staff are outraged.

Scott Walker, after all, is the same person who wants to take away the rights of the undeserving working class and the same person who will fight for the oppressed, overtaxed corporate businesspeople. It seems that anything associated with Walker would probably elicit the same reaction: loathing and repudiation.

While many things do deserve this reaction, I do not believe that the proposal to classify UW-Madison as a Public Authority separate from the UW System would be a terrible idea, given certain conditions.

UW-Madison’s split from the system under the New Badger Partnership, as the proposal is called, has generated much concern. One of the top concerns was that the separation would force UW-Madison to compete against other UW campuses for both funding and students.

While that might be true, I wonder if it is not already. Even now a budget allocation process would necessarily generate competition between campuses, if only within the UW System. A separation of UW-Madison, while seeming to generate competition, would only make more visible preexisting competition within the System. One thing it will not do is generate a competition that did not exist before.

As for attracting students, it is also obviously true that competition between campuses has always been present. UW-Madison, of course, is the most selective campus within the UW System, and attracts the brightest and the best students of the state (and some of the brighter students nationally and internationally). A separation of UW-Madison from the UW System, in this case, would not make any difference at all, except for perhaps an extra application for students to complete.

This generates more questions, though: is UW-Madison’s being different something undesirable? Would UW-Madison winning the ‘competition’ against other UW campuses be harmful to the state, or, more importantly, students in Wisconsin?
It cannot be denied that UW-Madison’s role is different from other UW schools. As one of the leading research institutions of the nation, UW-Madison is definitely deserving of special attention, if not special treatment by the state. After all, there is no other institution in Wisconsin that can live up to the reputation and productivity of UW-Madison’s research activity.

It is in the state’s interest to support UW-Madison – in preference to other campuses, when necessary – if Wisconsin is to be able to continue to boast having a world-class research institution. Pretending that all the schools are equal and deserving of equal treatment will only bring down the higher education system in Wisconsin; funding multiple campuses with mediocre research productivity instead of focusing on one campus could prove to be damaging considering the limited budget. Research, after all, is an activity that becomes tremendously more efficient with collaboration and proximity.

It is important to note that such a separation has been done before. California’s higher education system consists of a three-tiered system comprised of the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges. They serve different purposes and thus operate separately. The UC schools are catered to the most qualified students and have heavy emphasis on research, while the other systems provide more students the opportunity to go to college by having lower tuition.

This is not to say that the system in California works very well. They have also faced severe budget shortfalls, although not because of their three-tiered system. Nevertheless, though their system smells of an “elitism” that many detest, such a meritocracy has managed to bring results. After all, many of the UC schools – UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Francisco, among others – are world-class research institutions with reputations even UW-Madison cannot match.

Of course, the separation will only benefit UW-Madison if Walker’s attempt to politicize the move can be thwarted. That is, if there was a real attempt to gain control by Walker, not one just in our disillusioned minds. However, under the current proposal, 11 of the 21 Trustees – more than half – will be handpicked by Scott Walker, and I believe this is a cause for concern.

For now, we can only wait. However, until more details surface to prove otherwise, I believe that a move to separate UW-Madison from the system will free UW-Madison to be more competitive in the national and international setting and to serve as Wisconsin’s proud world-class research and educational institution.

Albert Budhipramono ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in biology.