On the day I met and interviewed Rebecca Blank, the newly appointed chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, one of the headlines of the day out of Madison was that a journalist had been arrested because he was reporting that people were being arrested for gathering and singing in the capitol building without a permit.
So, my first question to Blank was one of natural curiosity: With the political freak show that is Wisconsin these days, why in the world would anyone with such an impressive resume want to throw themselves into the middle of our cheesehead circus?
"The attraction of this job is the institution I am leading," Blank said. "The University of Wisconsin is a world-class institution. Has been for decades. There are challenges there, but there are enormous opportunities."
Make no mistake. The chancellor’s office is where politics and education intersect. The financial model of the American public university is broken. It used to be that the university was funded largely with state government funding, tuition and private donations.
Today, state governments are broke. In Wisconsin, the state’s share of the funding for the university system has fallen to just 15 percent. That is a driving reason that the tuition costs have skyrocketed.
The average UW-Madison student this fall will pay $9,273 in tuition, $1,130 in fees and $8,287 for room and board. That’s $18,690 per year. Now multiply that by four years, and you’re looking at total costs for a bachelor’s degree of $74,760.
The UW Board of Regents recently approved a two-year freeze in the system’s tuition rates. That will help students and their parents, but Blank is worried that state budget cuts and flat tuitions will make it even more difficult for the UW-Madison to recruit and retain the top academic staff and faculty that a world-class institution needs.
"It’s a real competitive disadvantage for us," Blank said. "Our faculty are in a national market. Their colleagues, everywhere in the country, are getting raises, and you aren’t. They notice that."
Blank, who is an economist by trade and a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce for President Barack Obama, says one of her key priorities will be to ramp up donations from alumni to help ease the UW-Madison’s financial distress.
Is a college degree still worth the costs?
"Absolutely," Blank said unequivocally. "The returns, relative to similar people who don’t go get those degrees, who don’t go to college, are still substantially higher. I’m very concerned about tuition levels. I know state incomes haven’t been growing here. You don’t want college tuitions to go up higher than incomes."
Blank said she is ready to tackle the challenge of forging a balanced equation "of work, some degree of borrowing, some degree of financial aid and some degree of family commitments" to help Wisconsin students pay for their college education.
"We’ve got to be able to do that," Blank said.
There have been some legislative discussions swirling around Madison about giving consideration to selling state-owned properties and buildings to the private sector.
Blank, who is scheduled to meet with Gov. Scott Walker soon, said she is open to discussing that concept.
"I would assume that if there were any discussions about this it would be done in a close and collaborative way with the university…I’m assuming they’re not going to come in and sell Bascom Hall out from under me," Blank said.
Bottom line…Blank’s knowledge and skills as an economist will be put to work in Madison.
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