UW-Madison chancellor concerned about funding for building projects

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank says she is “really, deeply worried” about funding for the university’s building projects.

“It is a budget year this coming year, but nobody’s doing much of anything until the election is over,” Blank said yesterday at a Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon in Madison. “We’ll see who it is we’re negotiating with and for what.”

She’s concerned because the state has funded “very, very little” in the last two bienniums compared to historical levels. Projects funded by UW-Madison that require several million dollars or more need the approval of the entire state Legislature and the governor.

That means these projects end up as “political footballs,” which she believes are “incredibly damaging” to the university.

“The constraints I have on capital projects are unprecedented compared to any of my peers… and almost unworkable at this point in time,” she said.

Blank adds that “we are the only university, the only university system in the country that doesn’t have a Moody’s bond rating,” with little control over its own projects.

“We’re going to really try to get the ability to issue our own bonds for at least some small part of our projects,” she said, referring to program revenue-funded projects. Those include any projects where the university generates the income to pay the bonds.

Last year, the state turned down “almost all” of UW-Madison’s program revenue projects, even though they were fully funded, Blank said.

If that effort to gain control is successful, Blank says she expects construction companies to benefit as well as the university.

“It’s going to be good for us; it’s going to let us do more and do it faster, and potentially even do it at a slightly lower cost,” she said.

In the previous biennium, the Legislature didn’t provide funding for new buildings or for maintenance, Blank said. That has led to a growing list of deferred maintenance, assessed over the past year. The assessment found the university had more deferred maintenance and lower capital investment in building projects over the last five to 10 years than the other Big 10 schools.

“I despair at times as to whether we will be able to do what we need to do, for being a 21st century research institution, without more control over that,” she said.

Also, she said, the state “will still hopefully be willing to fund some of the major teaching and education buildings that are on campus.”

State funding makes up 13 percent of UW-Madison’s budget this year, according to Blank. She argues state control over the institution should match the state’s investment, though she says “that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”

“In a world where being nimble in a highly competitive environment matters, we just have to have a little bit less state control, or we aren’t going to survive at our current level of quality,” she said.

–By Alex Moe