You Call This a State University?

by Tom Bozzo

Some of you may remember that there once was a time when a gaggle of relatively centrist Republican governors from the Upper Midwest a la Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson and Michigan’s John Engler were thought of as a AAA farm team for national Republican office. As it turns out, up here we’re dealing with longstanding fiscal problems from this particular brand of ‘don’t tax but spend anyway’ Republicanism, and one of the stranger metastases is a long-running and (on one side) exceptionally idiotic partisan battle in the Wisconsin legislature over the state’s support for the University of Wisconsin system.

More below the fold.

When driving up to the Twin Cities, we’d joke at rest stops about the (modern and clean) Tommy G. Thompson Memorial Bathrooms. (Considering that Thompson was governor for 14 years and a notional supporter of passenger rail, another legacy is our unimodal ground passenger transportation system, but that’s for another time.) But the macro feature of the Thompson-era budgets was a massive increase in spending on prisons offset by reductions in state support for the University of Wisconsin system, a pattern broadly repeated throughout the Big Ten. There were votes in locking up small-time (and mostly non-white) drug offenders, but otherwise this is a crude and cruel parody of a long-term pro-growth policy.

So here’s the picture from the UW system’s 2006-07 biennial operating budget request [pdf]:

That $1.044 billion is 24% of the operating budget (that’s for the whole system, not just the Madison campus); in the 1970s, the figure was around 50%.

Even capital spending is increasingly privatized. One of the big projects that’s keeping area non-residential construction afloat, the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery (a multidisciplinary facility intended to capitalize on the UW’s position in stem-cell research) is more than half-funded by a large private gift and the Wisconisn Alumni Research Foundation (which manages patents and other IP generated from UW research); state money is around a third of the bill.

I see an opportunity if big elite-university endowments were to be forced to operate in the general-public interest as a condition of maintaining their tax-exempt status. Why should Harvard get all the glory via the Harvard University of California at Berkeley? Lake Mendota may not be quite as scenic as San Francisco Bay, but it’s more usable for recreation, and the Yale University of Wisconsin at Madison would be a relative bargain.