Chancellor Martin’s letter to the community indicates that she and the provost have accepted the shared governance process, belatedly. This is a positive development. So, in the spirit of shared governance let’s consider the administration’s proposal and see what we think about it.
The essence of the current proposal is to centralize control over our research enterprise by splitting research functions off from the Graduate School and consolidating them in a new office for research under a new vice-chancellor. The question of whether such centralization would be a good move can be broken down into two parts. First, what might we gain? Second, what could we lose?
So what might we gain from centralization? One argument often made by our provost is that having a dedicated office for research would make us more competitive by bringing us into line with our peer institutions. However, year after year UW-Madison ranks among the top research institutions in the country, despite being located in a state with a relatively small population and a moderate average income. Though public investment in our higher education system has been anemic for decades and our faculty salaries are far below the median of our peer group, we continue to excel. We routinely beat our peer institutions in the funding race despite these challenges, so it would seem that we have little to gain by emulating them. It seems like they should be copying us, not the other way around.
Now, what could we lose from centralization? Since we are very successful but don’t really know why, we could conceivably lose the key to our success. What if our success owes to us having the most bottom-up culture of any U.S. university? What if it is our strong shared governance system that encourages faculty to pursue research in novel directions, since they know that they won’t be second guessed by a department head, dean or vice chancellor for research? Though the free-wheeling chaos our shared governance system generates no doubt causes periodic headaches for administrators, it may be the source of our competitive advantage. If our culture of shared decision-making is even partly responsible for our stunning success, dismantling our Graduate School to create a centralized system is probably a very bad idea.
We routinely out compete our peer institutions for research funding, and the reasons for our astounding research success have not been identified. Any proposed restructuring should be based on a clear identification of the problem to be solved, careful consideration of alternatives and sound data analysis. Anything less amounts to a reckless experiment on the UW-Madison research enterprise.