Jon Foley, the founder and director of the UW-Madison's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, was earning about $115,000 here at the UW. Not bad, but the University of Minnesota offered him a position as head of their Institute on the Environment, at twice his UW salary, plus a cool 1.2 million dollars of start-up mad money. Pretty sweet! UW-Madison wasn't able to come anywhere close to matching such an offer, so we lost one more of our heavy hitters.
Usually when a superstar like Foley gets lured away it's difficult to pin the blame on anything specific, but in this case we have a pretty good idea what happened. Seems Foley explained the situation in an email that he sent to friends, and that email was leaked to the State Journal. Here's part of what he had to say:
"It is remarkable how big a difference having a constructive and supportive legislature — even when money is still tight — makes in campus morale and attitude. There is a startling difference between the two universities (UW-Madison and the University of Minnesota) right now."Perhaps influenced by their party's growing antipathy towards science and education, Republicans have spent the past two decades trying to turn Wisconsin into an intellectual and economic wasteland by cutting money out of higher education and putting it into prisons. Our great universities may be rotting from the inside out, but being Tough on Crime® has sure helped a lot of Republicans get elected. Besides, we've locked up a heck of a lot more scary black folks, and who could complain about that?
Check out the chart below showing how state funding for UW-Madison has changed over the past twenty years. Pretty sad, although there has been a slight improvement recently. No doubt just a coincidence that the upturn occurred as Democrats took more power in the legislature. Click on the chart for a larger version. Email me if you'd like the data in a spreadsheet.
Full disclosure: My wife is a professor at UW-Madison. Coincidentally, she was also recently offered a significantly higher salary to take a high-profile position at a school in another state. Although she turned it down, we probably would have left if our kids weren't still in primary and secondary school here.
My wife is prominent enough in her field that she'll continue to be recruited by both private industry and other universities in the future, and in a few years our kids will be old enough to no longer be a factor. Unless state funding priorities change drastically, it's likely that she'll become one more symptom of the brain-drain that threatens the UW system.
Money isn't everything when it comes to academia, but only fools, and some Republicans, seem to think that it doesn't matter.