Ray Cross

UW System President Ray Cross

University of Wisconsin System leaders are asking the Legislature to change how proposed new higher education funding in the next state budget would be distributed, saying the Board of Regents — not lawmakers — should write the rules for dividing that money among UW campuses.

Their idea would be a major shift from Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 budget, which laid out a detailed plan for distributing $42.5 million in new funding for UW based on how campuses ranked against one another in a series of metrics meant to gauge their performance.

System President Ray Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said Thursday that letting the Board of Regents decide how to measure UW institutions would be more effective.

“The devil is in the details when you start trying to figure out how to tie the distribution of dollars to these metrics,” Blank wrote in a blog post. “To do this right — without unforeseen and negative consequences — requires some real thought and some knowledge of the UW System schools and how they operate.”

It remains to be seen, though, whether lawmakers will defer to UW on how to spend the proposed new money, or if they will look to keep strings attached to that funding.

Walker’s budget includes a plan that would measure universities on 18 performance criteria, including graduation rates, the number of degrees awarded in high-demand fields and how long it takes students to get a degree. The Regents would have limited authority — they would write two of the performance measures, and would also determine how much each position in the rankings would be worth.

Under a plan Cross described Thursday during testimony before the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, the Regents would define all of the performance metrics — based around general areas such as affordability and efficiency — and decide how to distribute the $42.5 million in Walker’s budget.

Rather than giving campuses money based on how they rank against one another, Cross said, the Regents could measure UW schools against peer institutions or against their prior performance in that category, in an effort to reward both “excellence and improvement.”

Those rules would be sent to the Legislature for review next spring, he said.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor’s plan lays out “reasonable metrics to ensure students are getting what they expect.”

“Because all of Wisconsin has an interest in the performance of public higher education, the metrics should be set independently from the UW System,” Evenson said when asked about the proposal by Cross and Blank.

Tailored approach sought

Researchers who study so-called “performance-based funding,” also known as “outcomes-based funding,” have cautioned against using the same funding criteria to measure different types of universities.

Cross and Blank echoed that concern. Since there is a wide range of UW institutions — from the large, selective, research university in Madison to smaller comprehensive campuses — they argued performance metrics should be tailored to the universities’ roles.

“We cannot promote or incentivize innovation well if we create a one-size-fits-all set of metrics,” Cross told lawmakers. “That would homogenize our System and the diversity of our institutions, and ultimately make them all look alike.

“Madison and Parkside will never be the same, nor should they.”

Cross said institutions should instead be able to choose which metrics they would be graded on, noting the Wisconsin Technical College System uses similar rules in its performance funding model. He acknowledged, however, that could open the door to universities only measuring themselves on criteria they know will make them look good, though he suggested the Regents could address that by making some categories mandatory.

“That’s something we have to work on and figure out,” Cross said.

Will Legislature support?

A question from committee chairman Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, hinted at potential barriers the UW officials’ proposal might face.

Murphy noted that the Board of Regents has always had the power to implement a performance-based funding system but hasn’t — so some might question whether lawmakers should rely on the board to do so now, he said.

“There’s a different approach within the board, and a sense of embracing this,” Cross responded. “We believe this is an area where we need to improve.”

Murphy said after the hearing that he is open to finding a compromise between the prescriptive plan in the governor’s budget and UW’s call for greater authority.

A performance funding plan “could be passed off to the Regents with some guidelines” from the Legislature, Murphy said.

“I think that’s certainly a possible path,” he said.

Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said he supported letting UW leaders write the funding rules, since lawmakers would have a chance to review them. More broadly, though, Hebl questioned whether legislators should take such an active role in UW’s rules given the declining funding for higher education in recent state budgets.

“The funding (UW gets) from the state is really a very small portion of what the cost is for university operations,” he said, “so the idea of us in the Legislature micromanaging the university system is something that’s alien to me — I don’t like that idea.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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