Cross calls for more partnerships between UW System, industry leaders

UW System President Ray Cross says he and other higher ed leaders need to do a better job partnering with industry to build support for the state’s colleges.

That’s because, Cross told a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon yesterday, the economic benefits that higher education brings are often not well understood by the public or politicians. That includes the life-changing research breakthroughs and the intellectual property that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, spurs new companies and adds thousands of jobs.

Even less appreciated, he said, are efforts by universities to not only train students for existing jobs, but to teach critical thinking and innovation. That’s important, he added, because by 2030, as many as 30 to 50 percent of the jobs will be new.

“The role of the university isn’t just to prepare people for the workforce,” he said.

Cross, an engineer who later joined academia, said workforce training is “one of our jobs” but that the UW also needs to put a greater emphasis on teaching creativity.

“The one thing that separates us from the rest of the world is our ability to innovate and translate that into commercial products,” Cross said.

State budget cuts, he warned, are threatening those innovation efforts just as many students are expressing interest in entrepreneurial programs.

But stronger partnerships with industry leaders could help ensure the UW gets more support from the state going forward, he said. In return for its backing, he told the audience of business leaders the public has the right to be “critical of us and we have the responsibility to be honest with you.”

“There is always a love-hate relationship with the private sector and the university,” Cross said. “But we cannot afford that in the future” if Wisconsin is to thrive, he added.

Cross spoke on a panel that included Michael Flanagan, president of La Crosse-based Flanagan Financial and Madison’s Functional Biosciences, as well as John Neis, managing director of Venture Investors, which has offices in Madison and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, moderated the discussion.

The Tech Council last month warned against more cuts to higher education, saying they’ll “prove costly over time” and calling for a blue-ribbon commission that examined several topics at UW.

Cross, who praised the Tech Council report, said he lamented the recent debate over tenure changes at the UW System — which led to no-confidence votes for him at several campuses. Cross called the changes minor but said the definition of tenure may continue to evolve and reward professors for their entrepreneurial efforts to start businesses.

Neis, whose venture capital firm has backed numerous companies started by UW faculty and researchers, said he fears that continuing cuts may lead to the departure of professors to greener pastures.

Worse, he said, up-and-coming faculty may decide against choosing UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and other universities as a place to teach and do research. Cross and Neis both noted that UW-Madison’s roughly $1 billion in research spending makes it one of the top in the country.

When researchers leave for other universities, they said, they often take their financial backing with them.

Flanagan, who lives in La Crosse, said nearly four dozen of his close relatives have four-year degrees — mostly from Wisconsin universities. He said the La Crosse area is thriving, thanks in large part to trained workers coming from Western Technical College, a two-year public school, and graduates of UW-La Crosse and Viterbo University, which is private.

Like Neis, Flanagan said he fears that cuts to university funding may lead to a decline in the system’s quality.

“If you don’t maintain excellence, you could lose it and never get it back,” he said.

— By Brian Clark,