Monday, August 25, 2008

"Lead, follow,
or get the hell out of the way..."

John Wiley - Speaking the Truth is Not Disloyalty

Excerpts from John Wiley's courageous article about the University of Wisconsin follow. There is a reason why Wisconsin is an outstanding university. Leadership matters. Our self-styled junkyard dog could possibly learn some things from Wiley...

From Madison magazine:

[Editors' Note: John D. Wiley is not leaving his post as chancellor of the state's flagship university quietly. In this extraordinarily honest and poignant piece, Wiley revisits a call to action he made in Madison Magazine five years ago, and implores the citizens of Wisconsin to take a stand against the state's largest interest group, corrosive political partisanship, and wasteful state policies before they cripple our state economy.]

Wisconsin has lost its way.

We've lost touch with our traditions and values. Our politics has become a poisonous swill, and the most influential voice for the business community has been taken hostage by partisan ideologues.

As I leave the chancellorship of the University of Wisconsin--Madison, I wish I could paint a brighter picture. It's difficult when two of the institutions with so much ability to drive positive change and growth--the business community and our university--are stuck in a swamp.

It is tempting to say, "I'm glad the health of UW--Madison is now someone else's problem. I can just go back to being a professor. Or, if I choose, I can retire altogether and move out of Wisconsin." But it's not someone else's problem: It's a problem for every citizen of Wisconsin and everyone who knows our history, our ideals and our potential.

Today, the governor is preparing the next biennial state budget and grappling with another massive deficit. After one-time lapses and permanent reductions in six of the last seven biennia, every state agency, state university, technical school, K-12 school district and municipality is facing the bleak prospect of further cutbacks.

We need to recover.

In 2003, I wrote an article for Madison Magazine called "Higher Education at the Crossroads." I opened with a plea for serious debate: I want to send a wake-up call to the citizens of Wisconsin regarding our economy and our educational system. The ailing economy poses a serious threat to our schools and colleges and unless we act now to protect funding for education, the state's future will be bleak.

The next three thousand words explained why by analyzing both where we stood and trends looking toward the future. I talked about the payback for investments in education to citizens as well as to the state, and their huge impact on our economy. I compared the situation to that in Minnesota--most unflattering to Wisconsin--and called for widespread debate on the public policies associated with public education.

My analysis has stood up well over the last five years; there's hardly a word I would change today. But we're still waiting for the debate to occur. And now, five years later, if I were to update the numbers, such as per capita incomes, returns on college investment and per capita expenditures on education, the picture would be even more bleak.

As chancellor, I had lots of occasions to meet with prominent, influential Wisconsin citizens and business leaders, and public support for public education was always at or near the top of my agenda for discussion. With almost no exceptions, everyone agreed that we can't grow our future economy without significant new investments in education--or at least a restoration of some of the last fifteen years worth of cuts. Those in the high-tech community are especially worried about the state's direction.

Still, the hyper-partisan political environment at the state capitol is toxic. The first priority seems to be to repudiate, damage or block any proposal or position of the other party. The second priority is to push their own party's proposals and positions in unaltered form.

The far distant third priority--to be avoided if at all possible--seems to be addressing any genuine state need that requires compromise.
All of this is pretty obvious to most Wisconsinites.

In every corner of the state, I hear complaints about partisanship from corporate executives, average Joes and everyone in between. I also hear that most people expect the university and the business community to lead the way toward a brighter future, as they have done in the past.

To that end, our university has been more entrepreneurial--our research park is thriving on the west side (and soon will expand to an exciting new site downtown), our discoveries are driving spin-off companies and our students are learning the importance of entrepreneurship.

According to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Wisconsin currently has the eleventh-highest per capita state tax revenues in the nation, and WMC cites the statistic as evidence that Wisconsin is a "tax hell."

But look at the ten states with higher per capita taxes than Wisconsin: Hawaii, Wyoming, Connecticut, Minnesota, Delaware, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California and New York. Nine of the ten have higher per capita income than Wisconsin. In particular, Minnesota, our demographic twin, has the fourth-highest per capita taxation, and they're knocking our socks off economically. They are currently ninth in the nation in per capita income while Wisconsin has slid to twenty-first.

And of the ten states with the lowest per capita taxation in the country--Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, New Hampshire, Colorado, South Dakota, and Texas--eight have lower per capita income than Wisconsin.

So which economies should we aspire to: the dynamic, high-income, high-tech, twenty-first-century economies of Minnesota, Delaware and Massachusetts, or the economies of South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama?

Real Solutions, Not Just Political Smoke and Mirrors

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only ten states have full-time legislatures, and Wisconsin is by far the smallest of these. Why do we need a full-time legislature if Minnesota, Indiana and other similar-sized states don't? How much money would we save, and how much less partisan would our legislature be, if we had part-time citizen legislators who met periodically to work together and solve problems?

Can anyone explain or justify the fact that, according to 2007 Census figures, Wisconsin has 22,966 people incarcerated when our sister state of Minnesota has only 8,757? Are Wisconsin citizens that much more criminally inclined? What does Minnesota know that we don't?

I could continue with dozens of additional examples, but I need to stop somewhere.

Let me end with two final messages.

To the citizens of Wisconsin: Unless we want Wisconsin to become a permanent third-world state, we need to stop electing fanatically dedicated partisan ideologues of all stripes and start electing pragmatic problem solvers.

To WMC [Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce] member companies: Please get control of your staff or replace them. Tell them, and your board, that they are expected to apply some of that legendary evidence-based, business-world pragmatism and stay focused on legitimate issues of Wisconsin's economic development instead of their personal political biases.
Despite Wisconsin's enormous problems, they are still cleaning our clock as a university.

Why, exactly is this? Might it have something to do with leadership?

Think of the great things that we should be able to do if we got our act together.

You do not hear folks at the University of Wisconsin making boasts about "ambitious aspirations to be one of the top three public research universities in the world [sic]." They are a lot closer to realizing this goal than we are.

Bob? Tom? Please think about it.

Could we please engage in a community conversation this Fall about where we stand at the University of Minnesota and where we want to go?

Instead of platitudes, could we have an honest assessment of the kind John Wiley has had the courage to make?

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