Friday, February 24, 2006

Perception vs. Reality in the Debate over the UW System

The Journal-Sentinel today is fronting a story about a public opinion survey on the UW System taken by the Madison-based PR firm Wood Communications Group. The survey was completed last fall, but in the midst of an election year and the revenue restrictions amendment debate, it’s starting to catch the attention of many people lately, especially aspiring politicians.

What jumped out at me in the JS story is that the president of Wood Communications Group, Jim Wood, paid for the survey himself. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest Wood wasn’t doing it solely out of the goodness of his heart.

According to the JS article: “Wood said he shared the results with Reilly and Don Nash, UW System executive vice president. He also has begun using them to try to create a roundtable of business leaders to advise the UW System and help it win more state support.”

So a PR firm conducts an internal survey on its own dime and then freely shares the disturbing news to an already PR-beleaguered UW System in the hopes of…what? I can only imagine Mr. Wood saw the act as an investment, not a gift.

After all, if the results showed the UW System was in good public standing, what benefit would they be to a firm that makes its living off bettering an organization’s public standing? I doubt they even would’ve been shared, in that case, with UW System officials and business leaders.

It’s tough to comment on the results of the survey before seeing the questions asked, the complete results, and the geographic disbursement of the people surveyed (I’ve recently contacted Wood Communications Group for this info and will post it if I get something back). The phrasing of the questions is especially important.

One comment I will make is that it seems the questions—based on the small amount of wording noted in the JS article—deal with public perception, as is the case with most public opinion polls, as opposed to reality. This is important to note because at the time of the survey last fall the UW System was under heavy media fire for troublesome situations like the highly-publicized Paul Barrows case.

How does fiscal reality match-up with the negative public perception highlighted by the Wood survey?

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report from January 2005, between the 1994-1995 and 2004-2005 school years, state funding for the UW System only increased an average of 1.48% per year, which is undoubtedly far below the annual increases in the costs of providing a high-level university education. And, in fact, state funding to the UW System has decreased each year since 2002-2003, which is when students saw their tuition jump the most.

As for the charge that not enough money is going toward the classroom, in reality the numbers tell a different story. According to the LFB report, of the $807 million collected in tuition during the 2004-2005 school year, 99.5% went toward instruction. The remaining 0.5% went toward academic support and student services. It’s state funding—which, again, has only increased annually at 1.48% over the last decade and actually decreased in recent years—that covers the majority (61%) of what could be considered the costs of administration (the remaining 39% comes through federal dollars, gifts & trust, etc.).

So it’s pretty clear public perception (or at least what was perceived through the Wood survey) and the fiscal reality of the UW System situation don’t exactly match-up on all counts. But, unfortunately, in politics like in PR, perception is king. How much we’re going to allow perception to dictate our public policy is the important question.

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