UW-Madison Interim Chancellor David Ward

UW-Madison Interim Chancellor David Ward

David Ward first came to Madison from England as a graduate student in 1960, before John Kennedy was president and before freshman Paul Soglin showed up from Chicago to embark on his adult destiny as our intermittent mayor.

Today, at 73, the self-effacing interim chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison laces his vision for UW with repeated references to his advanced age. But make no mistake: Ward's 2012 ideas to remake UW are distinctly anti-nostalgic.

In fact, his ambitious and eminently logical prescriptions include an indictment of some century-old UW traditions that he persuasively argues have impeded change: in particular, the state's continued heavy oversight despite its vastly diminished role in funding.

In making his overall case, Ward, ever the elegant speaker and buttoned-down, professorial presence, actually sounds a bit like a higher education bomb thrower.

On the topic of the university's financial model, he says the erosion of state tax support occurred "so gradually that nobody recognized it is now a fundamentally different system... It happened like water torture, just slow, dripping torture."

He complains that UW's financing is outdated and makes the UW overly beholden to state government, which now has what he calls only about a 15 percent "minority equity interest" -- the portion of the overall UW budget from the state.

Ward also says, emphatically, that UW has to come to grips with what he calls the "human resource issue." The Madison campus cannot maintain -- let alone enhance -- its national and international stature without paying its world-class researchers and scientists competitively.

The university is not some corporation in which the number of employees supervised matters, he says, but rather "it is the firepower of the brain that we need to reward."

He laments that when he raises the compensation issue off-campus, "nobody thinks it is a very big deal," even when he points to the fact that the UW has been without planned pay increases for five years. "I have been quite disappointed in reactions," he says, especially from legislators.

Ward isn't the first person to make this case, but I don't think anyone makes it better. After interviewing him in October, and hearing him again last week, when he offered a wry, conversational report to 255 members of Downtown Rotary, three themes strike me about Ward.

First, he possesses a wonderful ability to be sharply critical of those he sees as obstacles -- from meddling politicians to inflexible UW colleagues -- without sounding bombastic or confrontational. It brings to mind an old Billy Joel lyric, "She's so good with her stiletto, you don't even see the blade."

His words indict politicians, but he deftly mitigates their impact, saying, for example, that UW's funding problem is occurring in other states.

Second is Ward's extraordinary grasp of contexts: the Madison campus, the national and international landscapes. He seems to know every cultural quirk of UW-Madison gleaned from climbing the ladder from graduate student to chancellor, the post he occupied from 1993 until 2000. That is topped off by seven years as president of the American Council on Education, a prestigious national hothouse for higher education thinking in Washington, D.C. Quite the resume.

Third is his freedom to fearlessly speak and act that comes with that nifty "interim" title. What, after all, does he have to lose?

It's pretty easy to understand why, after Ward had given UW System President Kevin Reilly six names as candidates for interim chancellor, Reilly called back to target Ward himself.

Reilly, of course, was scrambling after former Chancellor Biddy Martin's abrupt exit for Amherst College in western Massachusetts in the wake of her hugely controversial and unsuccessful effort to separate UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System.

Ward agreed with Martin on the nature of UW-Madison's problem, but looking on from Washington, he says he concluded from many conversations with credible vote-counters that what he calls the "secession plan" had zero chance of approval. In his Rotary remarks, he said, "Many of us were thinking of Plan B right from the start."

For Ward and others, Plan B starts by confronting how much authority the state exerts over UW-Madison even as its financial stake has decreased, a trend Wards labels the "misfit of revenues and control." That doesn't require UW-Madison's secession from the UW System as Martin proposed, he says, but state oversight is a central issue.

Ward points out that federal support, much of it through research dollars, is three times as large as the state's support of UW and that philanthropy and tuition are also major contributors. As Ward puts it, "We have very diverse revenues, but we have really unconstrained state control."

He adds, "Is that control desirable for public accountability or is it intrusive and just inhibits the entrepreneurship of the campus?" Um, I think I can infer his answer.

From about 1945 until about 1990, state support for UW would ebb and flow depending on the health of the economy, but the arrow has been downward now for many years. Ward says until perhaps five years ago, UW could make shifts by moving the burden onto tuition to compensate for fewer tax dollars, but that cannot continue.

As elected officials chop budgets, they are far less likely to touch prisons, K-12 education and social programs. "We stand dead last in the application of the priority of these cuts," he told Rotarians.

Ward says there seems to be a view that UW can simply get more grants and gifts to replace lowered state support, "so why not squeeze them more?"

Ward says the answer to that rhetorical question should be "no" because it could cause a larger downward spiral. State support and tuition make up the core of the UW operating budget, which includes salaries and basic operations, and while it is true that money can and is being raised from elsewhere, those dollars tend to be restricted. Donors want to support tailored innovations and research dollars are also targeted.

Continued erosion of core support could erode UW's excellence, which then could slow the engine of research money and donor support. "Can you squeeze that down to where the leveraged effect starts to collapse?" he asks rhetorically. Yes, was the implication.

As I listen to Ward, I recall complaints during last year's tumult by legislators and others that average Wisconsin citizens feel UW-Madison is theirs and that they resent what they see as smug campus elitism.

Here's my alternative big-picture frame: Do we trust Ward, a deeply experienced, world-class intellect with no hidden agenda, to navigate this highly complex institution that is so central to the state's economic future, or do we get distracted by small-minded critics looking to exploit anti-intellectual stereotypes for political gain?

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