02/17/2011 08:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will UW-Madison Become Independent?

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- University of Wisconsin leaders have asked Gov. Scott Walker not to spin off the flagship UW-Madison campus from the rest of the system, saying the rumored move would create unnecessary competition that would hurt all the Wisconsin colleges.

Three UW leaders wrote to Walker on Tuesday saying it had come to their attention that Walker might propose removing the Madison university from the larger system as part of his budget proposal next week.

"We want to express strong concerns about this significant restructuring, especially without broad consultation and careful deliberation," the letter said.

The letter was signed by two Board of Regents executives, President Charles Pruitt and Vice President Mike Spector, and UW System President Kevin Reilly. A copy was obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press. UW spokesman David Giroux said system officials learned the proposal was in the works by "gathering enough intelligence" to understand that a separation was being considered.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie told AP he could not confirm any budget proposals.

"Lots of the details of the UW System including funding and flexibility will be released in the governor's budget, which will be introduced (next) Tuesday," he said.

UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin declined to say whether she thought a spin-off was a good idea, but said it never was her school's goal to be pulled out of the system.

If removed, UW-Madison likely would be run by a separate board whose members could be handpicked by Walker, which could give the Republican governor more control over how the university is run.

Walker has been aggressive in his first six weeks in office. Thousands of people have come to the Capitol this week to protest a bill that would strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights. He signed a bill earlier this month that gives Wisconsin companies a nominal tax break for every new job they add. He signed two other tax cut bills in January, one that wipes out corporate and personal income taxes for companies that relocate to Wisconsin and another that eliminated state income taxes on contributions to health savings accounts.

The idea of modifying the UW System isn't new.

UW schools have spent years trying to persuade the Legislature to grant them more autonomy and flexibility in spending decisions. Officials complain that state funds are earmarked for such specific purposes they're handcuffed when it comes to budgeting. They also say they're constrained by regulations written to apply to all state agencies, even though universities have unique needs that include attracting professors, acquiring research equipment and funding the construction of academic buildings.

Previous requests didn't go far in the Legislature, in part because lawmakers wanted to maintain oversight of an institution that currently receives $1.1 billion in taxpayer funding.

With Wisconsin now controlled by a Republican governor, Senate and Assembly, the idea of running the state's largest university more like a profit center could take off. It also could be a first step toward turning the school into a political pawn should subsequent administrations see things differently.

Martin had packaged UW-Madison's own requests for flexibility into a program called the New Badger Partnership. She said any gains in autonomy by her university could bode well for the other schools.

"If Madison were to be given something different I would expect that we would be a test case," she said, "and that our ability to deal with greater flexibility would help gain flexibility for all the campuses in the system."

System officials, however, worry that separating UW-Madison from the rest of the pack would increase academic competition within the state instead of allowing the Wisconsin schools to compete as a team against top universities in other states.

"We want to put all the UW campuses on a level playing field, competing for students, for grant money, for professors and researchers," Giroux said. "We want to compete with California, Minnesota and New York, but as a group."

The University of Wisconsin system has 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year universities, along with a stateside UW Extension program. About 23 percent of the system's nearly 182,000 students are at UW-Madison.