Crossing Wires

February 8, 2012 | Blog

A recent exchange between Chris Rickert and Mike Knetter provides a useful example of what happens when we engage in policy discussions without being insufficiently clear about our intended goals.

Chris’s column from Thursday was titled “Big donors don’t make a big impact on tuition at UW-Madison.” In this piece he makes the following points:

(1) UW-Madison faces a public relations problem because it claims to have financial troubles but building construction on campus is rampant.
(2) Private donations to UW often go to buildings and athletics, rather than to need-based financial aid.
(3) There is a national affordability crisis.

He does not tie these three points together in any clear fashion in the text of the column, but the headline attempts to do so by claiming that what the three points tell us is that donors aren’t really helping the university respond to the national crisis, since their money doesn’t go to discount tuition.

Obviously, those who raise money from private donors at UW were not happy. And so we have a response today from Mike Knetter, of UW Foundation. Knetter makes two very clear points:

(1) UW is grateful for every donation it receives, whether or not it goes to financial aid.
(2) Donations that improve educational quality enhance the affordability agenda, since it is meaningless to provide an inexpensive education if that education isn’t worthwhile.

Unfortunately, I think this discussion was not as productive as it could have been. If Chris’s intent was to question decisions about resource allocation at UW-Madison, perhaps to stimulate a deeper conversation about those issues, then he got off-track by implying that only donations to aid are useful.  Mike’s response is directly to that point.  And this is too bad, since it would be very helpful to the campus community for UW to engage in a public debate about the goals it is trying to achieve with limited resources, what the most effectives routes to achieving those goals are, and where we stand in relation to those paths.  If I’m reading between the lines correctly, Chris wants Madison to be responsive to public needs– but it’s not exactly clear that “responsive” means to him.  And if I am reading Mike correctly, he feels that in order for Madison to meet any of its many goals, it will need to continue to depend on private donors– and that means accepting the heterogenous motivations donors possess and working within those parameters.  That too should be up for some discussion.

I hope in the coming months we can all attempt to begin our arguments about what Madison and System should or should not do by first saying what we want these institutions to achieve.  Unless we have a common understanding of goals, the route to reaching those goals will continue to elude us.

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