UW needs to rebuild trust with Legislature, Ward says

Outgoing UW-Madison chancellor David Ward said Wednesday he believes the university was “rightfully dinged” by the Legislature for not being forthcoming about a $650 million surplus.

Speaking at a Madison Rotary Club luncheon four weeks before he retires as chancellor for the second time, Ward said he understood why lawmakers were upset and slapped the university system with a two-year tuition freeze.

He labeled tuition a “toxic” issue for the public, most regents and legislators on both sides of the aisle. And he called the dust-up over the surplus a “debacle” that obscured cooperation and progress on a number of issues.

“In my view, if you have significant surpluses – particularly from tuition revenue – it seems to be that is a factor in how you should be setting tuition,” he said.

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“I have no problem with the fact that legislators who had been deeply involved in setting tuition in this biennium did not fully understand those surpluses and were therefore rightly arguing that had we known that we would not have increased tuition by that much.”

However, he warned there may not be enough money to cover a possible shortfall over the next two years.

“Nevertheless, there was a misunderstanding, and I think it would have been easier if we could have had a ‘mea culpa’ dialogue about that earlier and more quickly.”

To avoid further punitive action by the Legislature, he said the regents, business groups and the university need to have an open discussion about tuition rates and other changes in higher education for the 21st century.

“We’ve got to rebuild trust, then we can talk about tuition,” he said after his talk.

“The key to me is to start talking early to them so they are in on the ground floor,” he said. “Some of them are quite hostile and may not even like higher education. But I think that’s quite rare. So we have to put something on the table that’s negotiable. First, though, the trust must be rebuilt.”

And if that doesn’t happen?

“I think it will be very bad,” he said. “By then, I’ll be a retired guy. I’ll do what I can to help. But I think the Board of Regents is getting it. I sense an emerging vision there. We also need some third-party advocacy, too.”

Ward, who reminisced about his two terms as head of UW-Madison, departed the campus for the first time after earning his doctorate here in history 50 years ago. The second was in 2000, when he left the chancellor’s post to become president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. He returned as interim chancellor in 2011, after being retired for two years and following the departure of Biddy Martin to become president of Amherst College.

He said he arrived when the “prevailing angst” at the time was the relationship between UW-Madison, the rest of the UW System and the system’s dealings with the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker.

“And then there was the whole issue of where public higher education fits into the economy,” he said. “There was a feeling that things were not working well, high partisanship and not a great deal of trust.

“It was an iceberg that re-exposed itself recently about concerns over balances in the UW System. But at least for the first 20 months of my second term, things seemed to move very well.”

He said the university was able to take advantage of many aspects of legislation “which did not give Madison the right to secede, but did encourage the system to be a more campus-sensitive federation, more of an inter-institution collaborative structure. There are different ways of running a system and perhaps a looser way is a better way.”

Though some feelings were bruised before he arrived, Ward said he came to be “quite impressed” by his fellow UW campus chancellors and how many have carved out competitive niches that are different than Madison’s.

He also praised the establishment of campus-focused chancellor’s councils – consisting of prominent alumni and three regent members — that will focus on issues unique to each school.

“That will give a sense of connection and grounding for Madison and Milwaukee that will be very important for my successor,” he said.

The chancellor said his campus’s main challenges are financial.

“The talent — students, faculty and staff — is not the challenge. It is the resource base to drive us forward and to develop a trust with the public that we are delivering the kind of talent we have out there as a public value.”

Ward said he was proud that the Madison campus had developed its own human resources system during his second tenure. But he lamented that its implementation has been held up for at least two years by the Legislature “because of the problems over the past two or three months as a form of punishment.”

He also lauded a “self-funded,” performance-based pay plan for Madison that is largely linked to “the fact that half that funding would not be state-funded, but would be from individuals who are in fact almost entrepreneurs in their own right, creating their own enterprise and paying their own salary.”

He said it is not well-understood how state support is highly leveraged to bring in federal grants, private connections with industry and philanthropy.

State dollars are the the “anchor and we value it,” but for every dollar UW-Madison gets from Wisconsin taxpayers, it gets three from federal taxpayers who live in the rest of the country, he said.

“That is perhaps what my predecessor was trying to get over about the university here in Madison,” he said. “We have a different revenue profile.”

Ward warned that UW-Madison will have difficulty keeping top faculty and researchers compared to peer schools such as the University of Michigan if funding lags.

That will be a significant challenge for Rebecca Blank, who will take over as chancellor next month.

Other areas she will need to focus on include the changing nature of delivering education by using technology, smoothing over the “false division” between pure and applied science, maintaining strong liberal arts programs and doing a better job of transferring technology from the lab bench to the marketplace to create jobs.

— By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com