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UW System to mark 30th anniversary

October 9, 2001

October marks the 30th anniversary of the merger combining the Wisconsin State Universities and the University of Wisconsin into one, seamless public higher education system.

Birthed through a process discussed for decades, created in part by economics, politics and not without controversy, the University of Wisconsin System has grown into a unified endeavor, each year educating more than 155,000 students on 26 campuses and 1 million citizens through UW-Extension.

“The UW System has evolved and matured since merger 30 years ago,” says UW System President Katharine Lyall, who will host an anniversary dinner Thursday, Oct. 11, at the Milwaukee Public Museum. “It is efficient, affordable, accessible, and it is benefiting the citizens of Wisconsin in multiple ways — exactly what supporters had in mind when they pushed for a merger of the two state university systems.”

The effort to consolidate public education in Wisconsin dates back to the 1890s, says Art Hove, special assistant emeritus at UW–Madison. “Merger was certainly not a new concept when it was approved in 1971, and, as always, it was a political concern,” he says.

Two former Wisconsin governors, Oscar Rennebohm and Walter J. Kohler Jr., had promoted merger in the late 1940s and early 1950s, respectively. In 1970, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Patrick J. Lucey revived the long-discussed idea of merging the two state systems.

“It seemed with a change in presidency of the UW and an upcoming change of the head of the state university system, that this would be an ideal time to bring about merger,” says Lucey in a recent interview. “If you looked at it from an historical perspective, the missions of the two systems had in fact already merged.”

After he took office in 1971, Lucey raised the issue again, saying a merger would contain the growing costs of two systems; give order to the increasing higher education demands of the state; control program duplication; and provide for a united voice and single UW budget.

Not surprisingly, Madison faculty and administrators by and large opposed the merger, fearing it would diminish the great state university. Most WSU faculty and administrators favored merger, believing it would add prestige to their institutions and level the playing field for state funding.

Merger legislation easily passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly. After much maneuvering and lobbying, it was approved by a one-vote margin in the Republican-controlled Senate. The UW System was born — although it took until 1974 for implementation legislation to be finalized. “I had to be pretty heavy-handed — no merger, no budget,” says Lucey.

But the merger has been a boon for Wisconsin higher education — and for Wisconsin. Those who played a key role in the merger say the Madison campus would have taken a huge hit politically and financially without it.

“When Madison opposed merger, the feeling was that we would do something negative to Madison,” says David Adamany, Lucey’s 1971 campaign issues manager and the person whom many consider the chief architect of merger.

“Our feeling was that merger would protect Madison in a political environment in which it had been badly weakened,” recalls Adamany.

Two skillful administrators, Don Percy and Don Smith, crafted the operating protocols to implement the merger.

“Without their heroic work, the UW System would not have matured as well or as collaboratively as it has,” Lyall says.

Today’s UW System is able marshal diverse and widespread forces to address key economic and societal issues.

“Higher education in Wisconsin is in good shape,” adds Adamany. “Most states would give anything to have the system Wisconsin has in place.”