Should University Flagships Go It Alone?


Overshadowed by the big political confrontation in Wisconsin is a higher-education story of note: The highly regarded “flagship” Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin seeks permission to secede from the rest of the state public higher education system (yet remain under the state’s oversight and subsidization).  While this is being justified now by the state’s budgetary problems, it is an aspiration long held by Madison and some of its sister “flagships” in other states. Is flagship independence a good idea?  Probably not, but in each state it depends on how its public higher education institutions are currently managed, and what any new-found autonomy might permit or restrict.

Two quite distinct issues are embroiled in this debate. One –the more important, I think–is the degree of financial and managerial autonomy that any state campus is allowed.  The other is the coherence and consistency with which state campuses are managed and financially supported as a group.  My views are colored by my ten-year experience as the chief academic officer of the State University of New York System, the largest in the nation, and one that manages, under one administrative roof,  64 diverse institutions, from community colleges to research universities.

I learned soon after I began as a SUNY system official how desirable it was to give the state’s public campuses enough administrative freedom to effectively meet their local responsibilities and balance their budgets.  After all, there was no way that a small staff in Albany could possibly micro-manage 64 widely dispersed campuses with different missions, thousands of faculty and staff and more than 450,000 students.  Thus, after 1997, every SUNY campus, not Albany, was given the last word on how its budgetary resources were spent, how its faculty and staff were deployed, and how it delivered education in the classroom.  But, giving campuses a greater measure of administrative freedom only worked because we also held campuses accountable to clear-cut, mutually agreed upon, operational academic and financial goals and metrics. 

With local administrative autonomy in place, we saw enormous benefits to SUNY in having all campuses be part of a unified and integrated state system, and these benefits should accrue to higher education operations everywhere – including Wisconsin.  Let’s begin with academic standards.  In every state, campuses are apt to differ seriously in the value they place on high graduation rates and the rigor of their courses and programs; only integrated systems are able to impose high academic standards on all their campuses.  Everywhere there is the bedeviling phenomenon of inter-campus transfer.  In SUNY, as in most states, a large percentage of community college students transfer to upper division colleges and research universities; only integrated systems can make sure that such transfers are academically appropriate and seamless. 

Another common challenge of state public higher education is minimizing unnecessary academic redundancy.  Left to their own devices, most colleges and universities – even research universities – have expansionist ambitions and are apt to needlessly replicate programs and degrees already available at other state campuses; only integrated systems can prevent this.  There are numerous economies of scale available only in integrated systems: at SUNY we were able to merge the millions of volumes of individual campus library holdings into a unified, electronically accessible university-wide collection and deliver a system-wide set of campus-initiated online courses.

Then there is mission creep.  In all states, many of their institutions seek to “upgrade” their missions; community colleges want to award baccalaureate degrees; baccalaureate colleges want to award doctorates; and second-rank doctoral campuses want to enter the research big-leagues.  Only integrated systems can make sure that all campuses “stick to their academic knitting” and not succumb to delusions of grandeur.  This point is of particular relevance in Wisconsin, because Madison’s secession from the system will inevitably tempt the other senior state campuses in Milwaukee and the state’s regional outposts to move up in their aspirations.  This phenomenon is evident in numerous states with fragmented or absent public higher education systems such as New Jersey, Michigan, and Texas.

So what does all of this mean for Madison’s bid to secede from the University of Wisconsin system?  For the reasons noted, I believe Madison’s independence would harm the overall academic integrity and efficiency of Wisconsin’s higher education enterprise without creating much value for Madison.  It is unlikely that independence would markedly upgrade its faculty or student body, increase its academic rigor or research volume, or even result in more state resources – especially in the current fiscal climate. In this connection, it should be noted that some of the nation’s most highly regarded public research universities–Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis and Irvine, all in the University of California System; Chapel Hill in the University of North Carolina system; Georgia Tech in the University of Georgia System, to name a few–are members of integrated state systems, and clearly outshine such autonomous state flagships as Rutgers in New Jersey or the University of Connecticut.  At the same time, the withdrawal of Madison from the system would likely lower the prestige of the remaining campuses, make inter-campus transfer and cooperation more difficult, and motivate the most senior campuses left behind to compete more strenuously with Madison for recognition and resources. 

Instead of secession, what Madison – and all of its system siblings – should demand from the state is that they be given the greatest possible fiscal and managerial autonomy (including the right to set their tuition schedules and keep all their non-tax levy revenue), while letting the – hopefully benign – University of Wisconsin system administrators make sure that all of the constituent state campuses fulfilled their distinctive missions with maximum efficiency and the highest academic standards.


  • Peter Salins

    Peter Salins is University Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University and director of its graduate program in public policy.

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