Chief takes on big budget cutters

April 12, 2002

Katharine Lyall this year marks her tenth year as president of the University of Wisconsin system, making her one of the longest-serving chief executives in US higher education.

It also means that Dr Lyall has a better understanding than most of the roller-coaster ride endured by American public universities.

For at least the second time in a decade, public campuses, including Dr Lyall's, are being hit by big budget cuts caused by the economic downturn. Higher education is often the first target for state legislatures desperate to make up for drops in tax revenue.

"A good part of the problem is that higher education is a long-term investment business, whereas legislatures are increasingly focused on the short term," Dr Lyall said. "It takes a university four years or more to graduate an entering student, but many state legislators serve two-year terms. That makes it very hard for universities to argue their benefits, because quite bluntly somebody who's interested in a two-year time horizon doesn't care."

Facing budget cuts of more than $100 million (£70 million) - after $55 million already cut over the previous decade - Wisconsin last month announced it was suspending undergraduate admissions and freezing hiring. It has since resumed admissions after the state legislature agreed to reduce the latest cuts by half.

Even so, Wisconsin faces a drastic decline in funding, despite applications rising 10 per cent because of a boom in the number of Americans of university age.

"Developing great universities is the work of a lifetime," Dr Lyall said. "The US has been blessed with a large number of very fine universities, but it's taken at least 100 years to build most of those institutions. If we lose that structure of excellence, it's going to take another 100 years to build it back."

The decision of the legislature to soften its budget blow resulted partly from aggressive lobbying by Dr Lyall, a tactic that is relatively new for public universities.

"We're being forced to be more politically sensitive and more politically active. And in that kind of a game, universities are always playing from weakness," she said.

"We don't have the kind of currency to play big-power politics. So we need to understand the political process better than we do, and we need to get our constituencies to speak out for us."

Those include students, parents, employees, alumni and industry. Wisconsin appealed to the business community in particular, arguing that weakening the university would hurt the state's economic competitiveness.

"The real tragedy is that we are going to wake up some day and say, 'what happened to the research and the graduates that used to drive our economic prosperity?'" Dr Lyall said.

Many American universities have turned to raising their tuition to offset budget cuts, a trend Dr Lyall called "perverse, because when families are least able to pay higher tuition is precisely when the state seems to cut back its support of higher education, and tuition goes up".

Politicians and some students argue that there remains room for universities to reduce wasteful spending. But Dr Lyall said there was precious little waste, if any, left. "Expecting large budget cuts to be handled just out of - quote - efficiencies - unquote - is a dream," she said.

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