Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, January 6, 2011

Student contributes to university accountability study


La Follette School student Nathaniel Inglis Steinfeld conducted research for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report Making the University of Wisconsin More Accountable through Greater Autonomy .

Outreach director Terry Shelton staffed the Commission for the Study of Administrative Value and Efficiency. Some of the WPRI report is based on the SAVE Commission's findings.

The fingerprints of a La Follette School student and staff member are on a wide-ranging study that promotes greater autonomy and accountability for the 150,000-student University of Wisconsin System.

Nathaniel Inglis Steinfeld, who is working on a dual degree in public affairs and law, researched much of the background for the article in the December issue of Wisconsin Policy Research Institute Reports while an intern for the conservative-leaning free market think tank last summer. The institute's president, George Lightbourn, is a 1976 alum of the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, a precursor of the La Follette School.

Much of the foundation of the article is based on findings of the Commission for the Study of Administrative Value and Efficiency that outreach director Terry Shelton staffed in 1993-94.

"I hope the report sparks some discussion," says Inglis Steinfeld. "The report encourages a maintenance of the public nature of the university but allows for more nimble response by the university system administrators to adapt to the changing economic world."

Much of his research focused on changes at another great and historic higher education system, that of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

"The public higher ed article was very interesting to work on — and something I did not know much about before I started researching," Inglis Steinfeld says. "There are definitely some innovative models around the country, and the report should give the UW System some basis for thinking about whether it wants to pursue any changes. The recent changes in Virginia, for example, show that states can maintain some control (and maintain the public nature of flagship schools) while giving greater authority and autonomy to the institution's administrators. Virginia is a good example, too, because they too have a historic relationship of having public schools. Thomas Jefferson founded University of Virginia to educate the citizens of Virginia."

The timing of the article is important, Inglis Steinfeld notes, because Chancellor Biddy Martin is promoting her New Badger Partnership initiative, which would reduce legislative interference and state support in exchange for greater automony on issues such as tuition, hiring, and purchasing.

"Wisconsin couldn't simply take Virginia's model and implement it here — our history and traditions are quite different," Inglis Steinfeld says. "The SAVE Commission report explains some ways that the UW System could be streamlined within the structure here. It would be great for policymakers to go back to that report and consider what ways we can continue to adapt our higher ed system to meet the needs of the changing economy. Reading the SAVE Commission was interesting because it could have been written last year, not 15 years ago."

Then-governor Tommy Thompson appointed the SAVE Commission in 1993 to identify ways to streamline state government and make it more flexible in dealing with emerging technology and rising competition from other states and nations. In staffing the blue-ribbon commission, Shelton organized dozens of meetings, conferences and hearings around the state, as well as serving as the project manager for the final report. He had just joined the La Follette Institute's staff when he was put on an extra assignment at Thompson's request.

"I'm tickled to find out that our study, which we considered visionary, is getting new attention," Shelton says. "We studied the problems of the state for 18 months, and many people poured their hearts and minds into trying to find a path for our leaders and our citizens."

The SAVE Commission came up with 22 recommendations, all based on a simple vision, he says. "We set out, in Wisconsin's best tradition, to boldly make choices for a 21st century state government. We wanted to create a framework to establish an atmosphere of continuous renewal, to balance public and private initiatives and responsibilities, to leverage learning and technology, and to value good government and government service."

The Legislature would have to enact any changes to the University of Wisconsin System. Inglis Steinfeld is optimistic about changes over the next few years.

"We have an absolutely fantastic public university system in Wisconsin and an amazing culture stemming from the Wisconsin Idea — anything that can be done to strengthen those two features should definitely be considered and carried out," he says.

— article last updated February 24, 2011