Another perspective on public authority: “The University Should Reject the Governor’s Proposal for Independence”

nicholsYesterday, we received the text below from Donald Nichols, former president of PROFS, former chair of the University Committee, former Director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, and someone who truly “has seen government work.” We post it with his permission. As you’ll see, this statement refers to and builds on the recent PROFS forum about the public authority, which, as the statement notes, provided a wide range of perspectives. PROFS has not yet taken a formal position on the public authority, but our role remains at present to provide as much information as we can. We look forward to continuing discussion on this critical matter.

The University Should Reject the Governor’s Proposal for Independence

Donald A. Nichols

Professor Emeritus of Economics and Public Affairs

I have read the available positions offered by several faculty regarding the Governor’s proposal to govern the Madison Campus through an independent authority.  I find these communications to be surprisingly naïve about the issue of how government works.

I regard myself as somewhat naïve, though my past experience observing government in action has been extensive, certainly compared to those who are offering opinions on this issue.  My experience begins when I took a year of absence in 1975-76 to work as the chief economist for the Budget Committee of the United Sates Senate.  The clash between policy and politics amazed me.  I returned to Washington as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor whose assignment was Economic Policy and Research.  Labor is a very political department and had a lot of strength in 1977-79, which are the years I was there.  Again, politics trumped policy, though I learned that if properly blended with politics, policy had a chance of being adopted.

Returning to Madison, I accepted a quarter-time position as Economic Advisor to the Governor, a position I held from 1983-1986.  I was responsible for economic analyses and for the economic forecast around which the budget was built.  I had done forecasting in Washington and was experienced with the need of the government for forecasts and of the difficulties of producing such forecasts.  Economic forecasts are based on data that are late and subject to huge revisions; our science is weak; and unpredictable future events will change public opinion.  But someone has to do it, and with experience and intuition, it can be done well.

When Governor Thompson replaced governor Earl, my formal relationship with state government ended, but I had good informal relations with Tommy.  I would be home in my office and the phone would ring:  “Would you accept a call from the Governor?”  And then Tommy would ask if I trusted the DOR forecast and was it a likely enough outcome that he could build a budget on it?  I also accompanied Tommy on a business development trip to Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore and saw him interact with his business constituents.

At the university, I was elected to the university committee in the late 1980s, and then became the President of Profs and the chair of the University Committee the early 1990s.  The year I was head of PROFS, we negotiated “Catch up 2.”  I was given a strong role to play working our proposal through system, and then through the Regents, before it could go forward to DOA.  I ended up having several face to face negotiating sessions with Tommy.

Governor Doyle’s administration was more closed and I had few relations with it.  I was on his Economic Advisory Council, a group of about 30 business types who met irregularly.  At these meetings, I would occasionally be asked without notice to give extemporaneous presentations to the group.  Separately, after a private briefing of the Governor on exchange rates and the likely future value of the Yuan for him to use on his upcoming trip to China, I ended up accompanying him and about 50 business types to China.

Based on these experiences, I would say I have seen government work.  And based on my experience, I view the faculty letters I have seen as naïve.  In my view, the independence we need is from DOA, which is an extension of the Governor’s office, not the Regents.  A strong point of the proposed bill is that it grants Madison independence from DOA in some important areas, including personnel management, and in some but not all construction.  The issue of independence from DOA has been around a long time.  I remember a session in the 1990s where Klauser (Tommy’s Secretary of DOA) made a presentation on Campus claiming the University had all the budgetary independence it needed because it got all its funding in a single line.  Then some researchers in the audience gave some telling examples to the contrary.  One said that he had obtained a grant to do research in Africa on a hurried schedule and that the grant provided funding for him to buy two Land Rovers.  DOA had denied his request, saying they had negotiated a statewide contract to buy only Suburbans so he couldn’t buy Land Rovers.  The researcher replied that they didn’t sell or service Suburbans in deep Africa, only Land Rovers.  It took him eight months of his 12 month grant to get a variance to buy Land Rovers.  Another spoke up about the delays encountered in buying 32 machines for data entry, which caused him to farm the project out to another university, where he was quickly up and running.

And remember, it is DOA, not the regents, who wanted to turn many of our academic staff into civil servants.   Typically, the Regents have been down in the Capitol fighting for us on these issues.  We might miss them under the new plan.

The question of politics and the proposed structure of the authority are not discussed at an expert level in the faculty letters. To learn about these, I recommend the paper by Harry Peterson that was presented at a PROFS panel discussion held several weeks ago – the other speakers were regent Tom Loftus,(also a useful read,) English professor Cyrena Pondrom, and history professor Jeremy Suri. Harry has real world experience working with three UW-Madison chancellors and serving as Donna Shalala’s legislative liaison downtown, plus experience in other public university systems. He more than most people has the ability to assess the likely future behavior of the players under one structure compared to another.  He points to some crippling flaws in the proposed structure.

He understands the links between elected officials and the university.   Most of the rest of the respondents deal at the surface with a few simple issues: Isn’t Madison different from the other Campuses?  Yes.  Wouldn’t more flexibility be a good thing?  Yes, 0f course.   They jump from that to ergo, we should be independent, and since Walker has a proposal for independence, why don’t we grab it.

Harry points out that, because of politics, maybe we shouldn’t be independent.  Maybe the geographical diversity of the other 12 gives us more strength in the legislature with them than we would have if we go it alone.  And if it came down to it, maybe we could defend ourselves from the other 12 better by being inside the same organization.  (How many Ph.D.s in economics will they ask for the authority to offer?)

And Harry points out that the structure matters enormously.  Maybe we should be independent, but only if a suitable structure can be designed that would protect us from the governor, (including DOA,) the legislature and the other 12.  He finds an authority to which the Governor appoints members to short three year terms to be flawed.  I found all the statements by the scholars to be completely ignorant of structural flaws like these, and not even to address important issues of this kind.  They are tempted by the ergo to jump, but they have no idea of the importance of the proposed Authority’s structure, which is the very nature of the Authority to which they are jumping.

We would like more freedom, but the lack of mention of “Freedom from whom” is telling, and the lack of any convincing statement about the strengths of the new organization compared to those of the existing one shows us to be babes in the political wilderness.

I oppose the creation of an independent authority as proposed by the Governor.