To Wisconsin Voters: “You Are Losing Your University”

This recent op-ed piece, “You Are Losing Your University,” from William L. Holahan, emeritus professor and former chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Charles O. Kroncke, retired dean of the College of Business at UWM, appeared in Urban Milwaukee (May 18, 2016).

Last week, the UW-Milwaukee faculty unanimously passed a vote of “no confidence” in the UW system and its Board of Regents. They hope this extreme measure will call public attention to the negative consequences the current state budget will likely have on the university’s ability to continue conducting high level research. Their vote comes just as the Carnegie Foundation rated the quality of UWM research as “R1,” its highest designation, earned by just two percent of American universities and colleges. Much to the faculty’s chagrin, the university’s current budget is being slashed so deeply that much of what they accomplished in the last half century is now in danger of being undone. Now, after receiving such a high national ranking for its research function, is the time to expand, not cut, the scope and scale of these activities.

Contrary to the view of Gov. Scott Walker and many legislators and regents, major research universities operate quite differently from the way business firms do. In a conventional firm, talent is arrayed from top down, whereas talent resides at all levels in research universities, from the recently hired young scholar to the seasoned professor. To be considered for a position as an assistant professor at a top-tier research university requires graduation from a top doctoral program with high grades and evidence of future research productivity. Once hired, the assistant professor usually has six years of probation in which to produce a significant peer-reviewed research record and evidence of strong teaching performance. Only then is an application for tenure made. The tenure review process will take several months and involve evaluation by scholars from around the world as well as from the home university. The granting of tenure provides the right to work hard after half a life of working hard. In an effort to create new knowledge, professors routinely reach far beyond the boundaries of their campus, state, and country; this is referred to as the “peer-review” research process. Professors who can function at this level of professionalism produce great benefits for the state, and currently we are at risk of losing far too many of them.

There are many educational benefits for students at R1 universities, many of which are not readily apparent. The professors who produce the R1 level research also maintain the curriculum in line with professional standards. They design the syllabus, choose the textbooks, and hire the professors in accordance with such standards. Students can have R1 scholars teaching their classes and mentoring them and directing their research projects. They can earn a letter of recommendation from professors who are well recognized in their profession and are able to provide trusted assessments in support of the student’s efforts to study at a top graduate school, law school, medical school, or to work at a major agency or think tank.

Cuts in the UWM budget bring lost opportunity; among the losers will be those advanced business and cultural enterprises whose prosperity relies in part on bringing to Wisconsin people that are on the leading edge in their fields of expertise. These cuts will become a cause for exodus, not attraction. Of course, the biggest losers will be those many excellent students for whom UWM is the only university within their financial grasp. Numbered among UWM graduates are architects, artists, business executives, educators, engineers, entertainers, healthcare professionals, religious leaders, and scientists. Many of these successful individuals were the first in their family to attend college; most of them needing loans and part-time employment while enrolled. UWM is a great institution for upward economic and social mobility, and its graduates enhance the cultural and economic growth of the region.

UWM is a high-return asset for the region and the state. It has been built by faculty and staff over many decades and funded by our taxpayers, tuition-payers and donors. The Carnegie Foundation designation is a signal that now is the appropriate time to invest, not cut, UWM’s budget so that the level of excellence achieved can be maintained.