Michael Ford Testimony to the WI Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, May 3, 2023

Thank you to Chair Murphy and to all members of the committee for being here, and for inviting me to speak on this important topic. I’ll start with a little bit of background of who I am, and why I care so much about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and equity in our public discourse, and at our public institutions.

I’ve been a professor in the Masters of Public Administration program at UW Oshkosh since 2013. I teach courses in Public and Nonprofit Budgeting, Public Private Partnerships, Nonprofit Management, Research Methods, and a few other areas. In 2021 I, along with my colleague Dr. Samantha Larson, founded the Whitburn Center for Governance and Policy Research. Our mission at the Whitburn Center is to conduct nonpartisan, practical, applied research focused on evaluating and improving governance, professional management, and public policy in Wisconsin and beyond. Our mission in the masters of public administration program is to prepare students for a career in public service, usually in state and local government.

I frequently tell my students that they will be facing a challenging situation when working in government. Resources are finite, needs are infinite, and values are contested. In public service you must confront every situation as it exists, not as you hope it exists.

This brings me to the topic I was asked to speak on today. As President Rothman told Wisconsin Public Radio the other day, our university is a microcosm of the state.  Our students are black, brown, white, rural, urban, straight, lgbtq, liberal, conservative and everything in between. Many are first generation, many are not. They study business, social science, nursing, etc.

When we are at our best, UWO is a dynamic brew of diverse people and thought, a place where students can be who they are, discuss challenging topics, disagree, and grow. There is a saying that as goes Milwaukee goes the state…but I’m more fond of saying as goes our regional comprehensive universities goes the state. The reality is UWO, and the other regional comprehensive universities in the UW system, educate the majority of our resident students.

To educate them effectively, and for our public universities to more broadly embody the Wisconsin idea, we need a climate that embraces free speech and expression. If a student is spending time worrying about whether to share their thoughts in the classroom, they are sacrificing time and energy that should go into learning. If a student feels censored or unwelcome in the classroom, their fellow students lose the chance to learn from them, to engage with them in a constructive manner. On a macro-level, a climate that limits freedom of expression and speech fails to prepare students for their post-college life.

I do want to bring up what I think is the elephant in the room around the topics of free speech, expression, and equity. We are living in a divided time where culture wars dominate the public discourse. We doom scroll through Twitter looking for that post that validates our position, or for that post that allows us to indulge in self-riotous noble outrage. But Twitter is not reality.

Too often people hear the term free speech, and it is interpreted as code for a conservative attack on public institutions. Frankly, I have colleagues that aren’t too happy I’m speaking on this topic today. Let’s flip the coin. Too often people hear the term social equity, and it is interpreted as code for racial quotas, or indoctrination by left-wing professors who’ve never had a real job.

But what are we really talking about when we speak of equity and freedom of speech and expression? I see people of different ideological persuasions talking past one another in pursuit of a very similar thing: Ensuring that one’s personal background and belief system is not a barrier to learning or knowledge generation. After all, a public university that only works for some, or only welcomes some people and viewpoints, is a public university that doesn’t work.

Turning to the free speech survey, I was able to attend the launch, and able to spend some time working through the results. There is a lot to digest in there, and while we can argue about intent and stop there, that isn’t constructive. So what can those survey results tell us?

On the positive side, it is encouraging that UWO students seem to have a better understanding of their 1st amendment rights than some of their peers at other institutions. It is also encouraging that only 9% of system students agree that professors discourage students from exploring a wide variety of viewpoints often or extremely often. The nuanced results make it pretty clear there is no widespread indoctrination of students going on. That is not surprising to me after nine years in the UW system, but important to point out nonetheless.

But, there are areas of concern, two data points really stuck out to me. The first is that only 31% of respondents are very or extremely interested in discussing controversial topics. I think about the practical impact of almost 70 percent of any population avoiding discussion of controversial topics in a democratic society. Self-governing is all about engagement, and right now, too many students are not engaging in public discourse.

It is easy to understand why. Engagement can bring consequences, consequences that are no fun. I mentioned that some of my colleagues weren’t happy with me appearing here today, that was hard for me, and I am a 41 one year old tenured professor, with all the privileges that entails, with 15+ years of engagement in public life. It is tough to imagine how hard it must be to put yourself out there as a college student finding your way in the world.  

Digging deeper into the results, it is the self-identified very and somewhat liberal, and then the very conservative students, who are most likely to engage on controversial topics. In other words, it is the edges driving the discourse around controversial topics. I think we all feel this when reading the news or watching the talking heads on Sunday morning, but it is nonetheless striking to see the evidence right in here in Wisconsin.

To be clear, it is ok to be an outlier, ideology is a spectrum, and part of living in an open society is a right to exist where you want on that spectrum. But when the edges are the loudest and/or only voices, it is the majority who are not heard; the moderate voices that are devalued. How can the center hold when it is not engaging in the public conversation? How do we, those of us who believe in the American experiment, preserve our free society, if so many young folks choose to tune out, or feel forced to tune out?

The second data point that caught my attention is that only 12% of students report they are very or extremely interested in having their views challenged. I can’t figure out if this is a result, or a cause, of our nation’s ideological divisions, but I know it is a problem. Learning requires having your views challenged. It requires being vulnerable, being open to being wrong. This is true for students, for professors, and for policymakers.

A dynamic learning environment also requires a culture where people are able to disagree with someone while still recognizing the legitimacy of their views, and the pureness of their intent in expressing them. I have memories as a kid of my parents passionately arguing about Dukakis and Bush at the dinner table. They didn’t change each others’ minds, and it was ok. I was lucky to have that modeled behavior in my home, and I think about it a lot. Mutual respect does not have to be that complicated. The inherent value of free speech and expression on a college campus, and in a free society, doesn’t need to be controversial when taken at face value.

Yes, free speech can be uncomfortable. I am scheduled to teach a course on free speech and expression in the Fall, and we are going to read Philippa Strum’s “When the Nazis Came to Skokie,” which is about as uncomfortable a test of one’s commitment to an open society as there can be. But it is ok to uncomfortable. We often learn when we are uncomfortable. Part of the price of living in a free democratic society is being exposed to things with which we disagree.

This is not new, while prepping for today I came across the archives of the UW Oshkosh Intellectual Freedom Committee from 1965. I came across a video of a roundtable discussion in the early 1990s on the problems with speech codes. The struggle to create a university where freedom of expression is celebrated, and where people of all walks of life feel they belong, is ongoing. And that is good. It matters. Where better than a public university to have these discussions?

So, what can we do, here on campus, and across our state, to demonstrate and grow our commitment to free speech, free expression, and equity? To me, it is all about engagement. Let’s take the results of the freedom of speech survey seriously. Were the questions a bit clumsy? Yes. Was the response rate low, sure, and we know the process had its very public challenges. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. I’ve published a good number of peer-reviewed journal articles and I can assure you each one has its flaws. Perfect isn’t the goal, progress is.   

Engagement means rejecting a debate based on caricatures. If one group premises their opinions on the image of a conservative speaker being shouted down by angry students and faculty, and another group dismisses calls for free speech as a trojan horse for ending tenure and dismantling shared governance, we will forever be talking past one another. Serious people can approach this core value of a democratic society in a serious and constructive way. If we do not, we will cede the public discussion to the caricatures, and all of us will lose.

Engagement means taking the Wisconsin Idea seriously. Research Centers like the Whitburn Center, or UWO’s Center for Civic and Community Engagement, build connections between our university community and the state at-large. If we are to prepare our students for the world they will face, we need to engage with that world, challenge our own thinking, and ensure that our commitment to diversity, demographic and intellectual, is true, known, and celebrated.

Engagement means telling our story as researchers and teachers. My discipline is inherently outward facing, and premised on the ideals of equity and freedom, so it is really easy for me teach a course on free speech and expression. But I know many other courses in many other disciplines deal with the 1st amendment, with questions of democracy, and with freedom of expression. We need to tell that story, to elevate the quality of the public discussion around these issues that are core to student learning, to our success as a university, and to our future as a state.

To specifically answer the question that was posed to me when I was invited to this hearing:

“How does the lack of free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses affect the quality of higher education?”

Well, in those spaces where there is a lack of free speech and intellectual diversity, student learning and faculty research suffer. It is imperative that we as a university community lean into the discussion of free speech and diversity, as a true partner with policymakers who share the common goal of a dynamic, diverse, welcoming, and impactful UW system. For me that means teaching a course on free speech, accepting your kind invitation to speak today, and building connections between the university and those outside of it.

Others will engage in ways most appropriate to their discipline and position. The important thing is that we do engage as faculty, even when we disagree, that we encourage our students to find their voice in a free and open society, that we share our experiences and beliefs, and listen to what others share with us.

And ultimately my hope, no matter how naïve it sounds, is that we all embrace the humility, civility, and openness that allows us to pursue the common good for our diverse students, and state.

I thank you again for the opportunity to speak and I am happy to answer any questions.


What’s Up with Oshkosh’s Form of Government Anyway?

I watched last week’s Oshkosh mayoral and council candidate forum with some interest (you can too here: http://oshkoshmedia.org/ ). One question asked of candidates was regarding the council-manager form of government. I’ve heard this question asked in other settings, often in the form of a complaint: The city manager did (insert policy/administration decision here) and I can’t even vote them out! In addition to my service as a council member, I train future city managers (and other public and nonprofit sector leaders) in my day job. As such, I thought I’d answer a few questions about our form of government.

Is it rare in Wisconsin?

No. Nollenberger and Simmons (2016) show that over 70 percent of Wisconsin cities have a professional manager of some kind. According to the ICMA, the council-manager form is also the most prevalent form of government nationally. Strong mayor systems (where the mayor has executive powers) are clustered in very small, and very large cities.

What is the point?

The City of Oshkosh has over 500 employees implementing an operating budget of over $140 million. A city manager is a trained and experienced executive with the skills to manage a complex public organization. An elected mayor may or may not have such a skillset.

What is the core premise?

The core premise of the council-manager system is to separate the policy function from the administrative function. Policies reflect the priorities of the electorate as expressed by the city council. Hence, the city council should decide what the priorities are for the city manager. 

The administrative function involves implementation, or, the how. For example, one of the priorities of the Oshkosh city council is to address issues of homelessness in our community. We get to set the goal, but the expectation is that the city manager will form and execute the specific plan. 

Shorter: The city council decides, the city manager does.

Separating the policy function from the administrative function ensures that the will of the people is voiced, but also that the government has the competency to actually implement the will of the people. Done right, it prevents micro-managing from the council, allows for long-term planning, and takes day-to-day politics out of the task of running the organization. 

 Is it perfect?

No. Sometimes the boundaries between policy and administration are not so clear. There are times where elected officials have specific expertise that warrants more of an administrative function. There are also times where political leadership is necessary from a hired city manager. There are often times that the council and manager disagree about the scope of policy and administrative functions.  

How to make it work?

In my experience, the most important thing is for all actors to gain a common understanding of the boundaries between policy and administration. This means the city manager knows their role, and that the city council knows their role. The specifics will differ by locale, but what matters is the premise. The annual evaluation of the city manager, as well as the commitment to long-term planning via a strategic plan, is the vehicle by which to achieve common understanding of roles.

Would you support changing our government form?

Ok, this one is personal. No. I do not support changing our form of government. I have confidence in the idea of professional city management generally, and in our implementation of it specifically. The performance of our government can always be improved, and on that I have ideas and freely share them, but I see no reason why changing government form would improve our government’s performance.  

Thinking about the perilous state of the PA job market

Last week a series of tweets from the always wise Dr. Jessica Sowa caught my attention. Dr. Sowa tweeted:

“The market is going to be crap for a couple of years. When people are applying for Assistant Professor positions from government jobs they got out of their PhDs, let’s not do the usually BS/ can they hack it in academia thing, cool?”

“Admit it–we are snobs about this (don’t lie to me even if you lie to yourself). We want people to come straight from their PhDs but it may not be possible now. So let’s have some collective thinking about this and try to be cool for the next couple of years.”

As I have written before, my level of ignorance to academia was super high when I started. This was mostly my fault. I did not ask the right questions because my path was atypical. I did not anticipate an academic career, was never funded as a PhD student, worked full time through the process, and ultimately saw earning a PhD as an opportunity to advance my career in public policy. Due to some good advice, and some luck, I landed a job that worked for myself and my family.

But, I quickly learned that what I thought was my greatest asset as a PA academic, my practitioner experience, was seen as a liability by some. To be honest, I learned this a bit earlier when a member of my dissertation committee would not write me a letter of recommendation for an academic position, basically telling me that was not my trajectory. I get that these were choices I made. Everyone in academia has their own path, and really, we all can point to things in our experience that make us atypical.

Which brings me back to Dr. Sowa’s tweets. Right now, the harsh job market realities are being forced on new PhDs, it is not a matter of choice or ability. I totally agree with Dr. Sowa’s call for some collective rethinking. What should that look like? Well just my opinion, but, here are some questions I have:

  • Can we make it the norm to spend time as a practitioner during an academic career? For most of us, the incentives make moving back and forth between the academy and practice impossible. I think it would be helpful for the relevance of our field, and to practice, if we encouraged a back and forth. It would also make it normal to enter the field with a few years of non-academic experience.
  • Can we make more space for practitioner research in tenure decisions? I know some places already do this, but what if it was the norm?
  • Can we count years of practitioner experience toward the tenure clock? This one may be hard, and there would be a lot to think through, but it would shift our thinking.

I am thinking a lot about what comes after Covid. Our universities and our PA programs will be changed, how can we work to make sure they are changed for the better?

Week Two

Well that was a long week. It was fascinating to see people go from taking things kind of seriously, to really seriously, to whatever this is.  I say whatever this is because I, like everyone else, am uncertain about what comes next.

I wonder if (and really when) my wife will get sick.  She is a frontline health worker and it seems inevitable.  How will we manage this?  Will we all get sick at the same time, or will there be waves of illness in our house? How long will we be down?  That may sound a bit fatalistic, but I think it is practical for all of us to have a plan.

Selfishly I wonder how this impacts the April 7th election.  I know running around major intersections with my yard sign affixed to a broom handle was not my initial campaign strategy, but here we are.

I worry about local businesses.  We are ordering out and being supportive, but how do they survive this?  How do their employees pay their bills?  What will an aid package look like for them, and what will be the human toll in the meantime?

Mostly this is all just so weird.  We take the rhythms of daily life for granted until they are disrupted. Here in week two I find myself adjusting to this new reality, but how long will it last, and how can others less fortunate than I adjust?   I am able to stay home, work, and care for my kids.  Others are not in the same boat.

The one thing I know for sure is that the task ahead will be great.  It will test us all. Stay safe everyone.

Should I Be Worried?

I look outside and everything seems normal.  My kids are playing. Inside my wife is painting our family room. I am getting ready to make dinner and thinking about the work week ahead. It seems like a normal Sunday on the surface. But this is not normal.

I went to the grocery store and they were out of bread, eggs, and toilet paper. Aside from maybe salt at the end of winter, I do not recall having to worry about shortages of basic goods.  Should I worry about shortages of basic goods? It seems we all need to relax, but CNN is telling me that interest rates are zero and we have started quantitative easing.  Should I worry?

I am lucky that I am a tenured professor.  My classed were moved online, and the kids’ school was cancelled, but I can be home with them.  But my wife is a nurse practitioner who’s day will not consist of hunkering down.  Should we worry?

I am running for city council and do not know if I should be knocking on doors.  We have a debate tomorrow night that is still on.  Is that a good idea?  Should I worry?

My most level-headed friends that were pretty relaxed about this a couple days ago seem less relaxed today.  If they are worried, should I be worried?

This is all just so scary and surreal.

Being at a Regional Comprehensive University in PA

The other day I tweeted that I needed to be more assertive about getting on an editorial board this year.  Someone asked me, quite reasonably, why I want to be on the board?  When I thought about it, my desire is really a function to show that being at a regional comprehensive university does not preclude you from making a research impact.  I find the longer I work at a non-big-name institution the more I am motivated to demonstrate that it is not some kind of career death sentence.

I am admittedly a bit fixated on this issue.  Early in my academic career I would often have well-meaning colleagues tell me I have to move if I want to be successful.  I had not so well-meaning colleagues very obviously dismiss me because of my affiliation.  I had strange conversations where people asked me why I did not teach at a R1.  Honestly I get it.  Perhaps I am a bit of an outlier, and really it is flattering when I have well-meaning colleagues suggest job opportunities to me.

But, it is important to me to not only have a successful academic career, but to have a successful academic career where I am.  No, I did not go to one of the top ranked Ph.D. programs, but I use what I learned in that program every day.  Whatever the rankings say, I was prepared to succeed.  I do not have Ph.D. students, but I have MPA students that are smart, committed, and making a difference in their communities.  Yes, I have to teach a 4-3, but you know, it has helped me hone my skills in the classroom and establish great relationships with students.  No, I do not much travel and research support, but when I look at outcomes, i.e. conferences attended and research produced, I am doing fine.

I am one of the lucky ones, despite ups and downs along the way, the job market worked out well for me.  I share all of this because I think it is important for students and early career students to know there are many paths to success.  It is so easy to get caught up in the rankings game and perhaps miss a great opportunity.  It is also important that we keep our field diverse, there is so much talent in so many places; we suffer as a field if we ignore or dismiss that talent.

So we shall see if I ever get on an editorial board (and if I do if I regret it!).  But I will keep doing my part to contribute to the field in any way I can.  And I will of course spread the word about all the great things happening in our field…at universities of all types.

Where Does My Heart Lie?

I have had several great conversations this week about my city council run.  A question/comment that keeps coming up is the importance of not being seen as just some expert on local government, that I need to show where my heart lies.  Now I love the nuts and bolts of government.  I love budgeting.  I love finding new ways to connect government with those it serves.  I like statutes.  I like numbers.  Guilty as charged.

But where does my heart lie?  I mentioned I like numbers, here are some:

  • 18.2% – That is the percentage of Oshkosh residents living below the poverty line.
  • 4,178 – That is the number of Oshkosh public school students living in low-income households (42.2% of the district).
  • 1,553 – That is the number of Oshkosh public school students with disabilities.
  • 0 – That is the number of Black 8th graders in Oshkosh who scored proficient on the state English and Language Arts Exam last year.
  • 31 – That is the number of drug overdose deaths in Winnebago County in 2017.

But it is the numbers I don’t have that really scare me:

  • How many people in Oshkosh are insecure in their homes tonight?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are currently experiencing domestic abuse?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are struggling with addiction?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are currently experiencing discrimination based on their race or sexual orientation?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are struggling with mental illness?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are currently underemployed, or worried about providing for their basic needs?
  • How many people, today in Oshkosh, have needs and struggles that I do not even know about?

I embrace the boring parts of governing because good government is usually boring.  And it will take good government to make Oshkosh an even better place to live.  Grandstanding and petty politics won’t help us meet these challenges.  It will take hard work, inclusivity, collaboration, and innovative thinking.

I define success in this role as me leaving office having established:

  • A performance dashboard tied to our strategic plan that empowers us to make progress on Oshkosh’s most pressing issues.
  • An accountability statement that helps a divided council function as one.
  • An interactive budget document and platform that gives every resident a clear idea of where their tax dollar is going and why.
  • An intersectoral task force that empowers us to break down silos and achieve common goals. Goal number one is addressing our racial achievement gaps.  That is not a school district problem, it is an Oshkosh problem.

I know embrace the boring is not a good campaign slogan, but I proudly do it because my heart lies with those numbers and those questions.

Am I too Professorial to Serve on City Council?

Last Spring I applied for the open Oshkosh city council position but did not get it.  During the application process I gave a short presentation on my qualifications to the other council members.  I was told by some folks in the know that I came off a bit too professorial. It is reasonable feedback, my day job is in fact a professor of public administration.  But what does it mean to come off as too professorial?

I hear that critique as code for, A) He’s too detached, B) He’s never had a real job, C) He only knows what is in books about government, and D) He thinks he knows everything because he has a Ph.D. Here are my responses to each critique:

He’s too detached

My interest in serving on city council flows directly from my experience serving the community.  My service on the Plan Commission has given me a unique appreciation for the need to balance economic development with good land-use decisions.  Every two weeks I get to meet with a wonderful group of people and make consequential decisions regarding the future of Oshkosh.  It is a real privilege, and has been a great learning experience.  Every month I get to attend meetings of the Long-Range Finance Committee.  This might seem less exciting than Plan Commission, but it gives me firsthand experience in dealing with the city’s finances.  I also have the privilege of serving as the President of my Neighborhood Association, a position that connects me with the unique needs of neighborhoods, and has taught me that what neighborhoods want and need is not always the same as what the overall City wants and needs.  It too is a learning experience.

Less formal but no less important are the non-official things I do in Oshkosh (i.e. the fun stuff!).  Chatting with people after church, battling it out on the softball diamond or the tennis court, or simply talking to people while fishing (hard and soft water of course)…that is the good stuff.  The reason I’m running for office is because I love the people of Oshkosh, it is a great place to live work and play, and I want to keep it that way.

He’s never had a real job

I have a Ph.D. in Urban Studies.  This is true.  But I earned that degree while pursuing a successful career in public policy.  I worked full-time as a Researcher, a Vice-President of Operations, and a Research Director at two Milwaukee-area nonprofits while attending graduate school at night.  My career exposed me to politics, state and local government, and the real challenges facing Wisconsin communities.  More importantly, my career helped pay the bills while my wife and I started our family.  I made a conscience choice to switch careers after finishing school, and it is a choice I am glad I made, as Oshkosh is a great place to be.

He only knows what is in books about government

Those who cannot do, teach.  We have all heard the cliché.  Here is what you may now know about the program I teach in.  Our classes are all on Saturday because almost all of our students are working full-time in government and the nonprofit sector.  Yes, we have textbooks, but much of my teaching is applied work directly connected to the real challenges facing government in Wisconsin.  Public administration is an applied field, meaning my classes are designed to have a real-world impact, and to help students advance their careers.  If I get to serve, I will bring this applied expertise to my position.  Expertise alone does not make me qualified to serve, but it is an asset I bring to the table.

He thinks he knows everything because he has a Ph.D.

I know nothing!  Ok, I know some things.  I have hard skills in budgeting, data analysis, policy analysis, performance measurement, board governance, and Wisconsin government.  These areas of expertise are my day job.  They help pay the bills.  I think my local government expertise is a unique attribute that I can bring to the council.  I think that is a good thing.  But I do not think this qualifies me to serve as a council member.

I do not know everything, but I do know how to listen, and how to communicate.  I know that serving as a council member means representing everyone in Oshkosh, which requires listening and communication. I know that Oshkosh’s greatest asset is its people. We are diverse in age, race, ideology, and even in our values.  But we are all here because Oshkosh is a great place to live, and we all have a stake in the future of Oshkosh.  I want your support because you share my vision of Oshkosh For All.  What does that vision mean?

  • Every Oshkosh resident has a stake in Oshkosh’s success
  • Every Oshkosh resident has a right to be heard
  • Every Oshkosh resident has a right to know what their government is doing, why they are doing it, and whether they are doing it well

For more specifics of how I will implement this vision, to www.OshkoshForAll.com!

Does the UW System Need A Business Leader at the Helm?

Should the UW System look for a business leader to be its next president?  John Torinus poses this idea as a means to transform the UW system, arguing that “Business leaders are more inclined to be clear-eyed and hard-nosed about the need for strategic turn-arounds or transformations.”  Full disclosure, I am an employee of the UW system and hence have skin in the game, but Torinus’s premise is faulty.  The let’s run government like a business trope is built on an incomplete understanding of both the public and private sectors.

First, the assumption that private sector is more effective and efficient by virtue of being the private sector is plain wrong.  Private businesses fail all the time.  While the profit-motive gives private business a clear goal, i.e. maximizing profit, having a clear goal is no guarantee of success.  I am not reflexively opposed to a business leader running the UW system, but I do reject the premise that the system can only be transformed by a business leader.  A poorly matched leader will hurt the system regardless of where they come from.

Second, public sector shareholders are an open group (everyone owns a share), as opposed to the closed group of shareholders in a private corporation.  As such, the leader of the UW system must take into account equity, transparency, and minority rights in ways that a private business leader does not.  A university system will do things that lack clear economic rationale as a result of being a public entity.  This is not a weakness, but a key attribute of being an organization serving the public at-large.

Third, the UW system (and any public organization) lacks the clear market signals of a private corporation.  Failure is not always obvious because the stream of public and customer funding will continue (to some degree) in both good and bad times.  Leadership in a system without clear market signals requires a very different skillset than leadership over a private corporation.  To say nothing of the unique dual task of managing over a complicated bureaucracy populated with employees enjoying strong job protections, while at the same time being managed by an unpredictable politics.

Fourth, and this is the public management professor in me, but it drives me nuts that the very specific and well-developed field of public administration is ignored in these calls for running the UW system like a business.  Running a public organization is a very specific challenge that requires a very specific skillset.  We have assets throughout the system who are nationally-known experts on new public management, public governance, public budgeting, performance measurements, social equity, and so much more that is directly relevant to the business of running the UW system.  Assuming a business leader is more apt to be clear-eyed about what is needed is at odds with so much work being done right here in the UW system!

To be clear, I do not think picking a private sector leader to lead the UW system is an inherently bad idea any more than I think it is a good idea.  But I do know that assuming positive reform is only possible with a business leader is wrong.  My hope is that the next leader of our system is a good fit regardless of where they come from, and that the talent and expertise in our system is utilized as the asset it is.

Rethinking the UW System

I was recently asked on twitter what a restructuring of the UW system would look like.  I did not have an immediate answer (and still lack specifics), but I wanted to start by articulating some values.  I find it helpful to articulate broad values as a first step toward creating specific policies.  Failure to do that results in confused policies that will conflict with one another.  So what should be the dominant values in a restructured UW system?

  • The Wisconsin Idea. This is an easy one because it already defined as the idea “that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.”  I like this because it clearly states that part of our jobs as faculty and administrators in a public system is to be outward facing.  It also precludes us from existing solely for job training.
  • Academic Excellence. If we are putting out a sub-par product for our customers, what is the point of our existence?
  • Specialization. It is ok for some universities to have strengths and offerings that others do not have. It is ok for there to be multiple paths to tenure.  It is ok to have research and teaching expectations that are individualized.
  • Adequate Financial Support. I know, adequate is a loaded term, but any of us in the system right now can tell you what adequate does not look like.  Adequate support also ensures tuition remains affordable for students.
  • Adequate Flexibility. This is both an external issue, i.e. a question of state mandates, as well as an internal issue, i.e. the nature of the university bureaucracy.  To be more efficient and effective universities and departments need the freedom to make our own decisions as well as the freedom to innovate.
  • Equitable Financial Support. This refers to some of the inequities in support between campuses.  For example, there are two R1 Universities in Wisconsin but only one that gets treated that way.  I also think some of this is reflected in philanthropic support, I wish there was more thoughtful discussion about how resources can be distributed in ways that strengthen the system as a whole.
  • More Utilization of Campus Resources. What do I mean by that?  Well, this too is a two-way street.  Faculty have so much to offer the state in terms of having a practical positive impact on government and industry, yet we are underutilized.  At the same time, we need to be aggressive about making our abilities and willingness to contribute known.
  • Talent Generation. We want to graduate well-rounded students that are assets to Wisconsin.
  • Collaboration over Competition. In tough financial times every UW system school had the same plan: Increase enrollments.  We cannot all not be successful.  More collaboration between campuses, more cooperate diploma programs, less duplication, and more willingness to view each other as assets as opposed to competitors is needed.  What do I mean by less duplication?  I look at it this way, why have two underfunded struggling programs at two geographically close campuses when we can have one well-funded cooperative program active on both?

I do not have a monopoly on good ideas, and I am sure I am missing things, but I hope others are thinking about this too.  We have a challenging situation in the UW system, but we also have so much talent, and so many great things going on.  I think we can leverage the good stuff to proactively address the challenges.