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Biddy Martin
UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin.

Some top Wisconsin university officials fear that if UW-Madison splits from the rest of the University of Wisconsin System it will result in unnecessary duplications, competition for limited resources and skyrocketing tuition.

Those were some of the circumstances that led state university campuses to merge 40 years ago, creating the UW System.

Now, with a proposal to separate the flagship university from the rest of the fleet, some leaders are concerned Wisconsin will return to what they see as the bad old days.

"I came to believe it was a saving grace that Madison was merged into the System," said John Wiley, predecessor of current UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin. "It has benefits for Madison itself and for the state as a whole."

But this could be a way for Martin to gain the freedom from state bureaucracy she says is needed, especially given an expected blow to the university's state funding.

"The status quo is not an option," she said at a news conference Thursday. "We're going to take a very big cut. We can move forward. We can be innovative. We can be creative. We can set a course that will really allow us to thrive — or not."

How it might look

In Gov. Scott Walker's budget — expected to be released March 1 — he may offer Martin autonomy in the form of a split from the System, creating a separate governing body from the UW Board of Regents, the current trustees of the System.

Martin argues that state regulations on building, personnel and purchasing cost UW-Madison money and efficiency. She said this could be "a way to preserve the strength and quality of UW-Madison in the face of enormous economic stress."

Martin outlined what such a model might look like in a memo she drafted in early January in response to questions from Walker and his staff.

Some key points:

• A board, appointed by the governor and UW-Madison, that would adopt a budget and set and manage tuition.

• Continued state funding, in the form of a block grant.

• Shared governance, meaning faculty, academic staff and students would participate in running the university.

• The option to participate in purchasing agreements with other campuses outside the state.

• Freedom to design, bid and build projects without a 4 percent state fee.

Other UW System leaders are critical that these same flexibilities might not extend to all campuses and that Martin discussed this idea with Walker without input from the UW System or the Regents.

"It came as a shock, and yes, it's disappointing that something would be developed this way," said Regent David Walsh.

Concern over tuition

Martin has pointed to Virginia as a possible model for Wisconsin. Public universities there gained similar freedom from state oversight in 2005 — but the state is now rethinking that model.

After Virginia Commonwealth University announced it wanted to hike tuition by 24 percent, Gov. Robert McDonnell threatened to pull state support.

"The governor came back and cut some of their budget to offset that increase," said James Alessio, director of higher education restructuring at the Council of Higher Education for Virginia. "That was a way of saying, 'I don't like what you did.'"

Large tuition increases are one concern if UW-Madison breaks off from the rest of the System.

In Martin's memo, she lays out a scenario where if UW-Madison took a $50 million cut in funding, tuition would need to increase an average of 10 percent per year over a two-year period to offset the loss. That compares to recent annual increases of about 5.5 percent to tuition on the System level.

"Most citizens of Wisconsin think (UW-Madison) is an elitist institution for the rich," Wiley said. "It happens not to be true, but that's what they believe. If we are forced into a position where we have to raise tuition drastically, we will earn and deserve that charge."

Martin has said she will work to raise financial aid for students who can't afford the tuition increases.

1971 merger criticized

The merger in 1971 between two systems — the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin State Universities — was met with criticism at the time.

But officials say it has been a huge success, allowing Wisconsin to avoid the battles for resources that occur at universities in other states.

In a letter to Walker arguing against a split, UW System leaders wrote that the System allows for a single application process, seamless transfer from one campus to another and for all campuses to benefit from the brand name of UW-Madison.

"To dismantle it at this point after it's had a successful 40 years, it's questionable," said Jay Smith, a former president of the Board of Regents.