It is a terrible understatement to say that the last year has been tumultuous for Wisconsin public higher education. We have witnessed a crisis of finance, politics and leadership. However, we can’t claim to have been blindsided, since this crisis was decades in the making and partly our own doing.

Over the last 40 years, Wisconsin decided to send its kids to college, but neglected to decide how to pay for it. Instead, families turned to the government-subsidized public sector, established when far fewer high school graduates went on to college. As enrollment expanded, the costs grew – partly because there were simply more students and partly because expectations rose. Families clamored for the University of Wisconsin to be an accessible, affordable version of Harvard University – but few wanted to pay the taxes to support it.

So UW stayed the course, keeping entering classes about the same size and educating as usual for several decades, all while competing to become a globally recognized research powerhouse. In effect, because the university did not change to accommodate demand, metaphorical gates – even a moat – sprang up around it. And the crowd just outside the gates grew louder. “What’s happening at that place”? they began to wonder. “A place that thinks my kid isn’t good enough”? “Who are those professors, complaining about their $70,000, nine-month salaries”? “Why should we support them”?  

Arguably, today’s UW leaves as many people of Wisconsin behind as it embraces, and it does so because it is pursuing other justifiably important interests. But the way it does this, as political scientist Katherine Cramer Walsh documents in a recent WISCAPE paper, comes off as unfeeling, elite and disengaged. The message sent by many proud alumni, faculty and administrators doesn’t help – UW’s practices are allowed, they said, “because we are different, and we are the best.”

In perpetuating that kind of talk, UW makes a critical mistake. We are not different – we are Wisconsin. We are only as much “the best” as we help the people of the state to be the best. We are not doing our job if we do not, every year, communicate with the people of Wisconsin about why it is essential that we continue to do our job well – and what accomplishing that requires. That kind of communication is not a series of op-eds or robocalls but regular two-way conversations where, as Walsh points out, we are actually listening.  

In a time of declining real income for many families and strong demand for college among very smart kids, we have no choice but to keep costs down and open our doors wider. At the same time, we are obligated to change the terms of the debate about taxation in this state – to help all residents understand why an investment in public higher education is among the most cost-effective decisions we can make. Doing this requires that we stop acting like Wisconsin public higher education is all about UW. It’s time to sit down with the people of this state, listen to their needs and find ways to meet them. That’s the only way to rebuild a future for public higher education. Either we do it now, or we should move over for the for-profit colleges and universities like Phoenix, Kaplan and DeVry, who are eager for the business. Make no mistake about it – they’re on the way.

Sara Goldrick-Rab ([email protected]) is an associate professor of educational policy studies.