Jeffrey Sommers: Wisconsin needs another Dane County — and Milwaukee's research institutions can help

Jeffrey Sommers: Wisconsin needs another Dane County — and Milwaukee's research institutions can help

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UW-Milwaukee campus

Dane County, with its University of Wisconsin, stands out as the Wisconsin’s big driver of innovation and employment. Last year (from June to June) this one county of 72 created a whopping 70% of our state’s private-sector jobs, and many were our highest paying. Meanwhile, most of the rest of Wisconsin fared poorly under austerity budgets.

What kinds of areas generate innovation and prosperity? “World cities and regions,” like London, Silicon Valley and Shanghai, and smaller cities built around world-class universities, like Madison. In short, research universities attracting top talent are the secret sauce, creating innovation and high-paying work. These, in turn, create tax revenues to support less developed areas.

Dane County excepted, most of Wisconsin has been bleeding out young people to other states. With lackluster business and job creation, our state desperately needs another Dane County. The obvious answer is Milwaukee. It could be done with a few tweaks. Already connected to Chicago by rail, the area is morphing into a larger urban corridor. With its lakefront, strong cultural institutions, major league sports franchises, and restaurant and cafe scenes that press outlets from the New York Times to the Atlantic have heralded as unsung, must-see destinations, Milwaukee is poised to take off. Yet, Milwaukee punches below potential on research universities, even though it is within striking range of having top-tier research institutions. Milwaukee has two institutions on the Carnegie research university classification system, with Marquette (a Tier 2 university) and UW-Milwaukee (that just barely holds onto its Tier 1 status). But, to really take off Milwaukee needs to ratchet up its research infrastructure in order to attract and incubate even more innovators. In fact, the Pittsburgh post-industrial, bio-tech economic miracle was based on just this: further leveraging its two research universities to remold the city into a center of innovation. Instead, Milwaukee’s universities, especially UW-Milwaukee, are scaling back, with the latter being hit hard by state funding cuts.

World-class universities aren't created overnight. In fact, they can’t even be created in a decade. And, the cost of creating a new Tier 1 university from scratch would be beyond Wisconsin’s ability to fund. Fortunately, Wisconsin has, after Madison, another Tier 1 university with UW-Milwaukee. As one of just over 100 Tier 1 institutions in all the U.S., UW-Milwaukee could be our state’s second driver of enterprise and innovation. The problem is UW-Milwaukee is underfunded by any reasonable metric.

Decades of work were put into creating UW-Milwaukee. It always delivered one of the lowest costs per student educated of any major research university in the country, while also receiving the lowest per student state support in the whole UW System. Regardless, this exemplar of efficiency and payoff per dollar invested saw radical reductions in its budget the past decade, even as most states began renewed investment in their public Tier 1 research universities in 2013 after the worst effects of the 2008 economic crisis were past.

UW-Milwaukee has world-class talent. Having achieved its coveted Tier 1 research status in 2015 after decades of hard work, operating with only 18% of UW-Madison’s present annual budget, UW-Milwaukee was on track to become a top national university with centers of excellence known globally. Then the cuts hit. Today UW-Milwaukee only gets a paltry 17% of its budget from the state. Since the Republican-induced cuts, UW-Milwaukee lost over 100 university professors, many picked off by other even higher ranked research universities that are contributing mightily to their area’s economic development. While UW-Milwaukee retains its Tier 1 status, holding onto it will be challenging given a budget that is among the smallest of any Tier 1 research university nationally.

Throughout history, intellectuals and innovators have always been disproportionately liberal. Successful political leaders have always tolerated this. They often did not share the liberal outlook of their intellectuals, but they tolerated and even encouraged them as they knew it delivered economic benefits. Yet, backward-looking leaders frequently have expelled talent to their detriment. The winners have been those places taking them in. The modern variant of this “drive out the intellectuals” outlook is that universities contain too many liberal thinkers outside the applied sciences. Therefore, their numbers should be culled, but to tease out the desired “ingredient” of technology from universities, while discarding the rest (arts and pure science). This view was common in the Soviet Union, as it is with many current politicians in the United States today. The Soviets also thought they could purchase innovation by buying factories from abroad, as if somehow this represented innovation (if you are rolling your eyes and thinking Foxconn, you are on the mark). The problem is these strategies don’t work, as the Soviets discovered in their economy that proved short on innovation. In Wisconsin, to quote the late New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s like "déjà vu all over again.”

Innovation emerges out of a broader ecosystem of creativity across the arts and sciences. When the great innovator Steve Jobs was asked what college course most inspired his creation of the modern computer visual interface, he replied: “Japanese Calligraphy.” There is nothing predictable or formulaic about innovation. The secret sauce has many ingredients, some found only by chance. Looking at past national economic failures, China, wishing to continue its advance, has studied Japan’s economic model and why it came close but never matched U.S. innovation. China concluded the missing ingredient in Japan’s innovation recipe was insufficient investment in the arts. For, it is from that rich mix of creativity that, as Steve Jobs noted, innovation emerges and attracts talent. Thus, China, the U.S.’s chief economic competitor, is now heavily investing in the arts and humanities in order to facilitate technological innovation.

To switch metaphors, Wisconsin can put points on the board and score big wins by supporting research in Milwaukee. The choice before us is to be a research-driven economic success like Pittsburgh, or follow the Soviet model. Bad “coaching,” however, is dragging Wisconsin’s potential down. Investments in its research universities, especially UW-Milwaukee, are the big lift that can post big wins for Milwaukee and our state.

Jeffrey Sommers is a proud Wisconsinite and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His book on austerity in the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson) is titled "The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model."

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