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The End of Public Universities?

Sep 30, 2011

Recent economic struggles are leading some large public universities to seek funding from outside their usual state government sources. This and other factors are leading some university administrators to push for privatization and freedom from state budget constraints. But critics worry that privatization will make flagship universities less accessible to the lower-income students who often find success there.

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By Sarah Wright

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A Heated Debate

A recent push for privatization in public higher education is raising some hackles. In this case, 'privatization' refers to a separation from the funding and constraints associated with being part of a public university system. Privatization is a highly politicized word no matter how it's applied, and as such, some supporters and detractors of higher education privatization are getting heated.

Politics has played a major part in University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin's attempts to move the school toward privatization. In a recent editorial for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey pointed to Martin's abortion advocacy and gender scholarship, calling it 'strange' that she should collaborate with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Governor Walker has been a controversial, highly divisive figure on a national scale, but there doesn't seem to be a logical reason why Chancellor Martin's scholarship and specific political beliefs should prevent her from trying to work with the governor of her state.

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The New Badger Partnership

The UW-Madison privatization push is a great case study for the argued pros and cons of such a move. Chancellor Martin named her agenda 'The New Badger Partnership' (NBP) after the school's mascot. The NBP is Martin's response to what she sees as the potential for academic and developmental stagnation at the flagship UW-Madison, and by extension, the rest of the university system in Wisconsin. Her argument is that if the state's university systems take a hit in quality, the state's economic status will falter.

The NBP proposal seeks to modernize the 'business relationship' between the university and the state. The primary objectives of this move are to grant the university control over procurement and construction, faculty and staff compensation and hiring, and tuition. In a speech on October 19, Martin said that she wants to turn the university into a 'market-driven' institution that is competitive on a global scale.

Is the Public University Dying?

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is not the only public flagship university seeking or considering privatization in some form or another. According to Carey's editorial in The Chronicle, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is considering the move, and the University of Virginia has already privatized certain parts of the university. But to say that these few schools' attempts to respond to a very real economic crisis spells the death of public higher education is going too far. Some changes to the system as we know it are no doubt on the horizon. But it will take more than the privatization of a few flagship universities to make an all-consuming trend.

Privatization is just one way that public universities are exploring new funding methods.

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