A legislative move to expand a planned audit of the University of Wisconsin System is entirely appropriate given the recent revelation that the system has $648 million in reserves spread across hundreds and possibly thousands of accounts.
Students and families who faced 5.5% tuition increases in recent years deserve to know why those increases were necessary when university officials were setting aside money in those accounts for various purposes. Couldn’t the university have set aside fewer funds, still have a (albeit smaller) contingency and not raised tuition?
The public also deserves to know more about the reserves, including where the money came from, how the university determined the level of reserves and how the funds are allocated across the system. Are those funds in interest-bearing accounts?
And university officials need to address issues of transparency and accountability. Legislators are rightly angry that they were unaware of the size of the reserve funds, which came to light in a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That should not have been the case.
University officials have acknowledged that they should have been more forthcoming about the numbers and should have done a better job of explaining them. Absolutely: System officials have mishandled this from the moment the report came to light, and they haven’t been getting much better. It’s a public relations disaster for the UW System.