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New Chancellor Blank sets priorities for UW-Madison

UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank has only been on the job a short time, but has already developed priorities for the state’s flagship university: increasing merit pay, building partnerships with the private sector and repairing relationships with the Legislature.

Blank said one of the issues becoming more pronounced at UW-Madison has been keeping world-class faculty at the university. She believes a long-term fundraising campaign may be the best way to find merit pay and keep the university competitive.

“I don’t think that private fundraising is in any way a replacement for state dollars,” Blank said. “You should think about private fundraising as leveraging state dollars. Doing things with private dollars that you would never use state dollars to do.”

Blank endowed chairs may be a way to boost the university’s competitive advantage when it comes to keeping the best researchers and professors.

That doesn’t mean UW-Madison doesn’t want additional HR flexibilities. The Republican-run Legislature refused to give UW System and UW-Madison its own HR systems and pay plans after the reserve fund controversy. Blank said those flexibilities would not only help with keeping faculty, but could help ensure all UW-Madison employees are paid a living wage.

“We have an uncomfortable number of employees who are paid below the living wage amount for Madison,” Blank said. “We can’t do very much about that because of the restrictions we’re under within the state system. Now, there’s not actually huge numbers of these people, but I would really like to bring those people up to a slightly higher floor.”

Blank says she understands the rancor over the UW reserves, which resulted in budget cuts for the system in Walker’s 2013-15 budget. However, she believes it’s time to move on.

“The Legislature felt like we did not have fully transparent budgets, and I understand that,” Blank said. “The way these budgets are put together they’re pretty unreadable. We should have been doing a much better job on messaging on what these reserve funds were and how we use them and why we need them. But that said, I’m hoping that this is history now and we can put this behind us now.”

Blank has only had introductory conversations with Legislative leaders and says she’s not yet met with officials on more in-depth topics given the summer recess of the Legislature. But she says she’s ready to sit down and have honest discussions about concerns.

“I want to understand what are the pressures that some of the legislative leadership feels they’re under,” Blank said. “And my job is to communicate to them what’s the value of this university and what sort of support from them do we most need as they’re thinking about policies and programs and budgets.”

While UW System officials have said a defined level of state support is quickly becoming an imperative, Blank framed it as a balancing act for state government. Blank says the university can make a better case for its role as an economic driver throughout the state, but she also notes that UW is competing with other groups and institutions needing state funds.

“There’s nothing unique to Wisconsin; every state has reduced its support for higher education,” Blank said. “I would like to believe that there is some core amount of support the state feels it needs to provide to have the type of public institutions that are necessary to develop a skilled work, to have the innovation and research that attracts business and to generate the jobs that these institutions do generate. Whether that’s a fixed level, year to year, I don’t know. But I do believe that the state needs to have a commitment to these types of institutions, because I believe we are highly important to the economic vitality of the state itself.”

Blank focused her attention on raising private funds through an extended campaign, similar to the University of Michigan’s campaign that raked in $3.2 billion, but she also left open the possibility of raising out-of-state tuition or professional school tuition.

Given the tuition freeze imposed by the Legislature on all UW System schools, revenues for the system and campuses are fairly tight. However, the freeze only affected in-state undergraduate tuition. Blank said she’s committed to keeping the university affordable for state residents, but also has taken a critical eye to some of the market factors driving some of UWs other tuition rates.

“There are other groups like the professional schools here, whose tuition is far below their competitors,” Blank said. “I don’t see a reason to undersell our professional schools, which are just as good as the professional schools they’re competing with. And yet we charge $10,000 or $15,000 less. I’m an economist; that doesn’t make any market sense at all. And I admit I feel a little bit the same way about out-of-state tuition. We compete with Michigan, with Minnesota, with Illinois, with Iowa for out-of-state students. That’s a market. We’re better than many of those schools. And we should be selling our school to those students at the same price that others are.

-- By Jason Smathers


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