When you think about a state university, what do you believe should be its primary focus? Educating kids, right? And it's second purpose should be conducting research that can benefit all of society, correct? Anything beyond that is tertiary in importance and should be done only if resources are abundantly available. That is why the financial scandal unfolding at UW Oshkosh is so frustrating--none of it needed to happen.
In a nutshell, former Chancellor Richard Wells, former Vice Chancellor Tom Sonnleitner and former UWO Foundation President Art Rathjen colluded to not only bind the university to debt accrued by the foundation--but they also conducted secret fund transfers to cover that debt when the foundation failed to raise the money expected to pay off those debts. And for what did the foundation accrue that debt? For student scholarships? No. For construction of new on-campus laboratories? No. For endowment of research professorships? Not that either. Instead, the foundation racked up those debts for a hotel, a football stadium, bio-digesters and a conference center.
Sure the Oshkosh Sports Complex is nice, but we are still talking about Division III sports here--and I've heard from Oshkosh School District officials who are not too happy about having to play off-campus every home game for a rental fee they think is inflated. They would have preferred that the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation helped them build new football fields at each of the High Schools rather than a shared facility with the University.
The bio-digesters are one of those feel good things that campus liberals like to brag about. "Look at us turning our campus waste into 'free' energy!" And the second facility built on a Rosendale mega-farm could just as easily been funded through private investment (if anyone thought there is money to be made in turning cow-poop into electricity). I bet the UWO greens now feel like Volkswagen owners after the whole "fake emissions standards" controversy.
The Alumni Welcome and Conference Center is nice--and I have attended a number of events there. But those same events could have been held at the Convention Center, Reeve Memorial Union or the Sunnyview Expo Center. And I'm pretty sure alumni still know how to get around the campus without a "welcome center".
Of course, the biggest head scratcher--and the one that got people wondering about the Foundation's financing--was the partial ownership of the former Park Plaza Hotel. Even people at the slap ourselves on the back press conference to announce the purchase and redevelopment agreement were asking "Why is the University buying a hotel?" It would make a bit of sense if the school offered a hotel and hospitality degree. Or if getting to the campus from hotels by the interstate was actually a hassle.
At the ribbon cuttings for all of those now-tainted projects, Chancellor Wells would cite the "Wisconsin Idea"--which holds that the UW System should work to benefit everyone in the state--not just those that come to the campuses. But I'm pretty sure the "Idea" pertains to things like developing methods to increase dairy cow production, sending graduates with actual job skills back to their hometowns to grow and develop businesses and finding the cures for the diseases that kill so many--not renovating hotels, turning manure into small amounts of electricity and installing new artificial turf on a football field.