Thursday, March 14, 2013

On What Matters: Blank vs. Schill

My email inbox has been filled today with notes from upset colleagues who seem to feel I've misjudged Rebecca Blank's capacity for leading UW-Madison.  They don't understand, I'm told, how I can overlook her clear talents, deep commitments to social justice, and great scholarship.

I don't think I am.  I don't doubt any of those things.  This isn't about whether I like her or think she can do the job. The question is for which candidate -- Michael Schill or Rebecca Blank-- do we have the best evidence of success at UW-Madison.

I'd like to lay out more data for your consideration.  These are the types of things that led to my assessment, and so I encourage you to look for yourself, and then provide your input by tonight! (The committee will vote in the morning). Write to:

The Badger Herald posed direct questions to the candidates. Here is how they responded.

Michael Schill:  "There is nothing inconsistent with being a great educational institution and socioeconomic diversity. One of the things I was most proud of from my days at UCLA was that I was part of a great public university that led the nation in the percentage of students with Pell grants. Accessibility need not come at the cost of either student or faculty quality or of diversity. Low tuition and generous financial aid are two strategies to maintain accessibility. Excellence in education and research can be funded through increased state support, aggressive corporate and government grantsmanship, tech transfer, and a turbo-charged effort to promote philanthropic contributions."

Rebecca Blank:  "Public universities in the United States have long provided both accessibility and excellence.   That said, the reduced state support for these institutions in recent decades has resulted in greater pressure for tuition increases.  UW faces these financial issues, as do almost all other big public universities.  Dealing with these issues and continuing to provide both excellence and access is one of the major challenges in front of a new chancellor.  There are several ways to deal with this, although none of these responses will fully alleviate the budget pressures that UW is currently facing.  First, UW needs to work hard at expanding its funding sources other than tuition and state funding.  While UW has been very successful in raising research dollars, I believe that it can do more in soliciting private donations to endowment.   The Chancellor has to be the leader in this effort.  Second, UW has to continue to make sure that children from low-income families in Wisconsin who are admitted to UW can afford to attend.   This means providing financial aid to these students, so that higher tuition doesn’t make UW unaffordable.   Third, the deans of UW’s different schools and colleges need to have the flexibility to attract an appropriate share of higher-tuition out-of-state students into their graduate, professional and undergraduate programs…and the ‘appropriate share’ should differ by school and by degree level."   

Commentary: Blank talks about equity and excellence as distinct, while Schill frames them as one and the same.  Blank talks about higher tuition and holding students harmless via financial aid (Biddy Martin's strategy), while Schill talks about "low tuition and generous financial aid."  Blank says we need to work on things "other than tuition and state funding" while Schill begins with a focus on "increased state support."  

Michael Schill:  "The University of Wisconsin, as well as students throughout the state, can derive important benefits from being part of a great system. Shared resources, economies of scale, and seamless transfer practices are just a few of the ways that a close relationship with the UW system can achieve a win-win situation for all. Some level of flexibility for the campuses in certain areas is important, particularly when there is a need for speed of action or when the circumstances, market situations, and/or issues facing a particular campus are idiosyncratic. On the whole, I think many of the flexibilities included in the recent biennial budget as well as the recommendations of the recent Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities make a great deal of sense and will benefit all of the schools in the University. Based upon my experience at UCLA, I believe that the best way to make the relationship between the Legislature, the central university system, and the individual campuses productive is to develop relationships of trust and good will. UW-Madison has a particular advantage in this vein since the system is headquartered in Van Hise Hall, just a few hundred yards from Bascom Hall. I anticipate that if I ever had a problem that required central assistance I would just get myself out of my chair and take a walk over to the President’s office and work things out."

Rebecca Blank:  "Universities have certain unique organizational characteristics and I believe that it would be beneficial for the UW System to have greater flexibility in some key management decisions.   For instance, faculty and many staff compete in a national academic marketplace, and retaining them often requires salary flexibility that government pay systems are not designed to provide.  So I’m pleased that this discussion about administrative flexibility is ongoing within the state.  The University of Michigan, where I served as dean, has much greater autonomy and UM staff and faculty are not state employees, so these issues did not arise in the same way at that institution."

Commentary : It is not clear that Blank knows that Biddy Martin's efforts to gain "administrative flexibility" ended her tenure. Schill is evidently aware of it, and emphasizing the benefits of a close relationship with system.  Blank mentions that Michigan, where she has experience, is unlike Madison in important ways-- and she's right.