Bascom Hall (copy)

Recently, University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents President Andrew Peterson announced the nine-member search committee for the new UW System president, which consists of several current regents, one former regent, three current administrators and one student.

When asked about the many objections raised to this committee, Peterson said: “In a competitive environment where multiple state systems are actively searching for new presidential leadership, we need a small, nimble and dedicated committee comprised of board and academic leadership that represents diverse interests.”

But the current search committee doesn’t actually represent diverse interests. So let’s consider what a small, nimble, diverse and dedicated committee would look like.

For such a large public university system in a state with 5.8 million people, we can debate how small "small" actually is, but I’m sure we can agree on a size that works for all. Seems like 15-20 members would be small enough for such an important decision.

Finding dedicated committee members shouldn’t be difficult, either. We all know how important this position is, and there are plenty of dedicated faculty, staff, students, parents and community members who are up to the task.

So let’s focus on the requirements that committee members be nimble and represent diverse interests. Most dictionary definitions of nimble refer to “quick and light in movement or action” or “agile.” But it also means “quick to comprehend,” which seems like what we’re talking about here.

I’m confident that we can find a diverse group of candidates for the committee who are sufficiently nimble in this way. Intellectually nimble committee members would recognize, for example, that in order to lead a public university system, one should have academic credentials in the same way that the new police chief had better have law enforcement experience if they expect to be taken seriously and respected by the rank and file.

Further, a diverse committee of intellectually nimble members would also understand that conventional wisdom about the workforce, including the allegedly chronic “skills gaps” and “worker shortages,” have their origins in the talking points of trade groups and little basis in reality. These nimble minds would know that despite conventional wisdom, the percentage of the work force consisting of STEM jobs for STEM bachelor’s degree holders is actually quite low, and would insightfully question candidates for UW System president about their programmatic priorities with this knowledge in mind.

An intellectually nimble committee representing truly diverse interests would understand just how low wages actually are for most people (including many college graduates) in today’s ostensibly booming economy. So when our graduates are offered jobs with a salary of $35,000 in 2019 and told it is a "good job," nimble committee members would understand that this wage today is equivalent to a salary of roughly $18,500 in 1990 dollars (when people the age of Regents President Peterson and I received our degrees). Moreover, those same nimble thinkers would know that the $35,000 in 1990 has the same purchasing power of almost $71,000 in 2019.

And to drive the point home, the search committee should actually include some of the millions of American college graduates of various ages who earn low wages in jobs requiring college degrees. These committee members could be graduates, parents, instructional academic staff or other university staff, or community members, and could inform the committee and candidates what the “21st century jobs” constantly touted by foundations, consultants and trade groups really look like.

More fundamentally, an intellectually nimble, truly diverse committee would be keenly aware of how the non-debate about higher ed policy is playing out. For example, they would know that despite the fact that higher ed necessarily cannot influence either the wages paid or the distribution of available jobs, higher ed is still blamed when graduates cannot find suitable jobs or earn living wages. A neat trick indeed. They would know that wage levels and available jobs are influenced by the private sector and policy makers, not by your local English or biology departments, and they could make sure that prospective candidates for UW System President have this critical knowledge too.

A truly diverse, intellectually nimble committee would further understand that the entire debate about public higher ed — to the extent that there is one — is driven by our most vocal critics. We use their language and terms when we are told about the “new normal” or do to “more with less” by the very same interests who argue against taxation and public institutions generally. They would recognize that the push to create seemingly benign-sounding “partnerships” with business comes at a tremendous cost, as programs are eliminated and the university is remade in the interests of our biggest critics. The intellectually nimble diverse set of interests on the committee would see that our same critics, not coincidentally, lobby hard for the reduction of public funding and lowering of taxes, and then benefit from the “partnerships” they encourage. Another neat trick.

Finally, a truly diverse, intellectually nimble committee would recognize that most people aren’t winning in our economy, despite the lowest unemployment rate and highest stock market ever recorded. They would see that most people just aren’t feeling these things.

We need a new UW System President who truly understands the real economy and how education fits into it, and we won’t get one unless we have an intellectually nimble, truly diverse set of interests represented on the search committee.

So let’s have a small, nimble, dedicated committee representing diverse interests. I couldn’t agree more.

Neil Kraus is professor and chair of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls political science department.

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