In recent days, I've watched from afar as citizens of Wisconsin have captured the attention of the country with their spirited discussion and debate at the state Capitol. Clearly, the issues are painful and of great significance.
I've also been watching another issue brewing in Wisconsin, one that brings back lots of memories for me from my days as chancellor at UW-Madison. It's an active discussion and debate about what Chancellor Biddy Martin has dubbed the New Badger Partnership - her passionate and well-reasoned proposal that UW-Madison needs a new business model to better serve its students, faculty and staff, as well as the taxpayers of Wisconsin.
During my time as chancellor, we engaged in similar discussion and debate regarding UW Hospital, which at the time was part of UW-Madison. We argued passionately that to compete in the fast-changing world of institutional health care, we needed a new business model for the hospital. There were many who didn't want me to succeed with that.
Eventually, the Wisconsin Legislature responded, creating a separate public authority for UW Hospital and Clinics. To be sure, change was difficult; emotions were high. But in the end, the Legislature and Gov. Tommy Thompson listened closely and took a long term view. They recognized that the status quo was not good enough and that without dramatic change, the future of a great health care facility was in jeopardy.
Today, there is little doubt that UW Hospital and Clinics - a public authority managing itself with a public mission - is among the best in the business.
We are at a similar crossroads in 2011 with regard to UW-Madison and the University of Wisconsin System. It's always uncomfortable to argue that the System's flagship institution deserves special treatment. It's not an argument that says UW-Madison is better; rather, it's an argument that UW-Madison is different.
Unlike its brethren in the System, UW-Madison brings nearly $1.1 billion in research funding into the state of Wisconsin. Unlike any others in the System, UW-Madison is able to successfully compete nationally and internationally for students and thus bring significant out-of-state revenue to Wisconsin. Unlike any others in the System, UW-Madison's job-creating enterprise makes a significantly positive impact on the state's economy.
Clearly, there are those who would like Chancellor Martin to fail in her efforts. They will argue that a merger that was put in place over four decades ago still represents the best operational model; that one oversight board comprised of governor appointees can still effectively address the needs and concerns of all 14 system institutions.
That is simply not true. Nationally, public universities are seeking bold new ways to meet the challenges of reduced state funding. The administrative entities put in place when state funding was abundant are no longer applicable; they are no longer responsive to the need for flagship universities in those systems to compete successfully in the ever-more competitive higher education marketplace.
If the governor chooses to include a new separate authority for UW-Madison in his budget proposal next week, I urge everyone to look beyond the rhetoric. Remember UW Hospital.
For over 160 years, the citizens of Wisconsin have had the passion and vision to create a world class university in Madison. Creating a new public authority for UW-Madison may not be the only way to achieve the flexibilities necessary for UW-Madison, but it would go a long way in preserving and protecting one of the state's greatest treasures.
It is a bold plan, but one whose time has come.
Shalala is president of the University of Miami and served as chancellor of UW-Madison from 1987 to 1993.