Chancellor Blank: After budget cuts, time for state to reinvest

September 15, 2016 By Greg Bump

Now is the time for the state to reinvest in its higher education system, University of Wisconsin­–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told a crowd of about 100 students, staff, faculty and state legislators who attended a campus budget forum Wednesday at the Gordon Dining & Event Center.

Blank provided an update on the university’s current budget outlook, as well as the budget request proposed by UW System. Video of the forum will be available later at budget.wisc.edu.

UW System has seen funding cuts in five of the last six state budgets, which have threatened the quality of Wisconsin’s flagship university, both in reputation and in the departure of top faculty and staff, Blank said. UW–Madison is an economic engine for the state and educates highly skilled workers who help Wisconsin compete in a global economy.

“I recognize the pressures and challenges legislators and policymakers face around state budgets. We know Wisconsin has many needs and challenges in all parts of its budget. We can be part of the solution,” Blank said.

UW-Madison receives funding through five main channels: federal revenue, state revenue, gifts from donors and non-federal grants, student tuition and fees, and revenue from auxiliary operations like University Housing and the Wisconsin Union. The state share, which used to be the largest percentage of UW funding, is now the smallest, at 15 percent.

However, state funds remain vital to the UW’s teaching, research and outreach missions, Blank said, because they are used to leverage funds from the federal government and other sources. For example, state funding supports faculty who then write research proposals that bring in federal dollars.

Since the Great Recession, when state support for public universities was cut across the nation, other states have begun to reinvest in higher education, Blank said. In the fiscal years 2014 through 2016, only nine states reduced state support for higher education. Thirty-nine states had an increase – 4.1 percent, on average. UW System schools saw a decrease in state support of 8.1 percent.

“My biggest challenge as chancellor is to first make sure this university can find a way to stabilize its finances so we aren’t constantly facing budget crises every two years of the sort we’ve been this biennium,” Blank said. “But second, I need to do better than that. I can’t just stop the cuts; we need to get ahead. I have to find the funds that help us reinvest in the university.”

Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Laurent Heller, who joined UW–Madison a month ago from the University of California, Berkeley, said the university “runs very efficiently in pursuit of our public mission.”

UW-Madison’s spending on institutional support is 3.5 percent of total expenses, fourth lowest in the Big Ten, Heller said. The university has found savings through innovative procurement strategies, reducing campus energy use, and flexibility provided by the state when building grant- and gift-funded construction projects, he said.

“I challenge all of us to continue to look for smart ways to make the university run more efficiently. Because every dollar we save is a dollar we can reinvest in our instructional and research mission,” Heller said.

UW System Board of Regents President Regina Millner said the System budget request of $42.5 million in new funding focuses on strengthening the educational pipeline at all levels and building the state’s workforce, improving the university experience, addressing the needs of businesses and communities, and providing greater operational excellence.

“At this point, we are only at the very first phase of our efforts to advocate for the university in this upcoming biennial budget,” Millner said. “We have a great deal of hard work ahead of us, reminding the governor and legislators that the UW is an economic engine for all of Wisconsin and as such deserves investment.”

Blank said she strongly supports the Regents’ request, which includes funding for training students in Wisconsin’s most high-demand fields such as computer science, business, nursing and engineering. It also puts an emphasis on career initiatives, funding for building maintenance and renovation, and operational flexibilities.

Speaking about strategies for moving the request forward, Vice Chancellor for University Relations Charles Hoslet said advocacy efforts will go out via the media, in outreach to citizens around the state, and relationship building with policymakers.

“We won’t just be making our case to legislators,” Blank added. “We’ll go directly to the people of the state in new and creative ways. We can’t take for granted that everyone is aware of all of the ways in which this university and its alums are involved in communities across the state.”

During the audience Q&A period, Michael Moscicke, a member of the Academic Staff Executive Committee, asked if there is a long-term advocacy strategy in place. Hoslet said the media campaign and other outreach activities will be ongoing.

“This can’t just be done for six months every two years,” Hoslet said. “We are taking our advocacy strategy to a level we haven’t in the past.”