In wake of grilling from lawmakers, Ward reflects on higher ed’s changing landscape

When David Ward returned to UW-Madison in July of 2011 for his second go-around as chancellor, some thought he’d simply be a calming force until a new leader was picked.

But Ward, who will step down (again) in July when Rebecca Blank becomes chancellor, was anything but a placeholder.

“Higher education — whether we like it or not — is in big, irreversible change,” said Ward, speaking to a Wisconsin Innovation Network event on Tuesday in Madison.

“And to put that on pause for two years would have been a huge mistake,” added Ward, who said he’d had a rough morning at the state Capitol, where some lawmakers are upset about a recently disclosed UW System surplus in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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“It was a very difficult morning and I’m not sure everything is cool down there,” he mused. “They have a 15 percent equity interest, but they think they own UW-Madison and are the only shareholder. Fortunately, (many) understand that we are a partnership and we have multiple revenue flows.

“We are really a public-private (institution) and not just a public utility. I’ve been trying to convey that in the two years I’ve been back, but it’s not been easy.”

Ward, who was president of the American Council on Education from 2001 to 2008, said when he returned to Madison, he focused on how education is delivered and how it is transferred beyond academia to industry and other sectors.

“I didn’t want (those things) to fall by the wayside,” said Ward, who will turn 75 in July.

Ward — a native of England — said it is remarkable that this state is home to one of the nation’s top research universities. He said this is due in no small part to funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which licenses UW-Madison intellectual property, and the federal government’s support of pure research.

But he said there is anxiety over the future of UW-Madison, which has many new “remarkable” scientific facilities built largely with private funding (around 80 percent).

“The only hang-up we have now is (federal) sequestration, which will cut research funding,” he said. “For us, this could be a very big deal.”

Other anxieties have to do with the troubled American economy and the rise of countries like China and India, which can make it hard to see how successful UW-Madison has been, he said.

“There is concern that we aren’t as competitive as we once were,” he said.

“It’s also clear that higher education is in stress and not changing in a nimble or fast enough way as well,” he said. “And there is concern that we’re sending PhD’s elsewhere and are not creating enough local jobs.

“There’s a sort of nervousness about whether all this ‘stuff’ here is benefitting the state locally,” he added.

Ward praised Madison’s University Research Park, but said there is also a worry that the university has not done enough to foster a start-up culture like the one that has flourished around Austin, Texas or the Silicon Valley near Stanford.

The chancellor said the public/private Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery are a major step in the right direction toward fostering nascent companies, though it may take a decade for the results to be felt.

Other entrepreneurial programs on campus are also helping students, faculty and community members’ ideas, he said.

And he praised the announcement last month that the university’s graduate school and WARF creating a Discovery to Product (D2P) program that will be housed at the WID center.

“I will probably be gone before it’s up and running, but I hope that the embryonic structure will be there and offer coordinated one-stop shopping for potential innovative entrepreneurs, including undergraduates.”

Ward said D2P will complement the university’s powerhouse graduate school and its significant research funding, WARF’s endowment and the research park.

“We need this fourth area, D2P, to look as coherent, large and well-funded as the other three pieces,” he said.

“This fourth piece is necessary and I think that is an area where we are beginning to work together with the state and the private sector because in the end, it will also require some capital — and a risk culture that is greater than anything that we’ve ever encountered in this state in the last 50 years.”

— By Brian E. Clark