With the incessant talk of Wisconsin being “open for business” because of Gov. Scott Walker’s reforms, the University of Wisconsin appears to be the target in business’s attempt to completely overhaul the state. UW’s Chancellor Search and Screen process has drawn scrutiny from the Wisconsin business community – there have been numerous calls for the UW to hire a business person to lead the university. 

John Torinus, CEO of Serigraph, Inc., a Wisconsin-based graphics parts manufacturer, said in a blog post that the university is “not only involved in the supply side of the economy – providing talented graduates to companies and organizations – but it also needs to be engaged in the demand side – providing the intellectual property for the creation and growth of companies and jobs.” Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon, a Democrat who ran for Dane County Executive two years ago, asked the committee to make the relationship between the university and the business community a priority. 

Calls for a business-minded chancellor strike to the core of an ongoing debate that pits the university against Wisconsin industry, in which there seems to be a misunderstanding on the part of business people in Wisconsin as to the purpose of the university. 

Time and again we hear complaints that UW is not creating enough tech start-ups as spin-offs from research and development and the university does not produce enough qualified graduates to satisfy the growing needs of Wisconsin’s high-tech industry. These complaints mistakenly hold UW responsible for launching tech firms and training students for the express purpose of becoming industry professionals. As UW neuroscientist Ron Kalil puts it, “The UW is not a business incubator nor is it a job training school.” The university is a driving force in the Wisconsin economy, but this is not its reason for being. 

These voices in Wisconsin’s business community appear to have forgotten the university has taken steps to encourage collaboration between industry and university research. UW remains the most powerful economic engine in the entire state. Initiatives such as the Morgridge Institute for Research, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation foster research spin-off businesses that stay in Wisconsin. They attract clients and funding from around the world because of the astounding market potential of the innovations UW scientists produce as part of their research. In light of this, it seems ridiculous members of the business community are calling for a greater emphasis on industry at UW – the university has a history working closely with industry, and chancellors of the past have developed a close relationship with business in Wisconsin. 

The tendency of Wisconsin business to look to UW as a government-funded industry research and development lab is concerning. If the university acquiesces to demands from the business community and seeks to fill this role, it risks infringing on academic freedom by making profit a priority – taken to the logical extreme, a commitment to launching start-ups and providing the tech industry with employees would turn UW into a factory with the express purpose of generating patents and engineers. 

It is not the responsibility of the UW to build tech firms and graduate industry professionals, and by prioritizing these two efforts, the UW would be stifling the very innovation the business community wants it to produce. Even in science and technology, innovation cannot be demanded and manufactured – like fine art, true innovation grows best in an environment of creative freedom. The University of Wisconsin’s commitment to academic freedom in scientific research provides exactly the right atmosphere for innovation. It is ironic that businesspeople, who so often advocate for small government and a free, unregulated market, want to push the university to cater to industry and in doing so restrict creative freedom in research. 

In fact, launching businesses from university research and development is the responsibility of the business community. Profit incentive alone is enough to ensure research projects with the potential to become business ventures will be turned into start-up firms, without intervention on the behalf of the university. 

Business people are asking for a business-minded chancellor because they want UW to serve the needs of the business community exclusively. This is an absolutist approach to the relationship between business and public education that should be rejected. If the Search and Screen Committee decides to hire a businessperson as chancellor, it should do so in the interest of the university. A business perspective could benefit UW – a chancellor with a wealth of experience in effective management and efficient administration would be a valuable asset. UW doesn’t need a chancellor who will serve Wisconsin industry – it needs a chancellor who will make education and academic freedom in research a priority. The business end will take care of itself. 

Otherwise, what’s the difference between a public university and a for-profit college?