WAICU, a nonprofit organized under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, was founded in 1961 and is recognized in state law as the official organization of Wisconsin’s private nonprofit colleges and universities and their nearly 54,000 students. Each WAICU member is a nonprofit, fully accredited, degree-granting institution of higher learning, but each is unique, with its own mission and culture.
On April 29, 1961, at a meeting of college presidents, a resolution was introduced calling for the creation of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. The first chair was Dr. Miller Upton, president of Beloit College. The bylaws were developed by a committee chaired by Dr. Robert Steele, president of Carroll College, and included on this committee were representatives from Marquette University and Edgewood College.
The early meetings of WAICU were focused on developing a philosophy of independent higher education and on curriculum issues. The minutes emphasized the importance of frank discussion by presidents on the larger issues of concern to the sector as opposed to the issues relating to a particular institution. The first three action items (in priority order) were research (understanding who we are), marketing and public relations (communicating with the public), and governmental relations.
For the first six years, these three activities were carried out by committees of presidents. At the first meeting, however, it was suggested that one of the presidents might also convene a meeting of the public relations directors. The academic deans also joined in the presidents’ meetings on a regular basis.
Already in 1963, there was a discussion of a paid staff for WAICU, specifically to handle research. In 1964, it was decided that WAICU should also monitor legislation. Shortly thereafter, WAICU contracted with a law firm to lobby for it.
In 1964, WAICU hired its first executive director, and in 1965, with strong advocacy from WAICU, the Wisconsin Tuition Grant was enacted. In 1968, WAICU incorporated and opened a full time, staffed office in Madison. Over the years, WAICU has had six executive directors or presidents/CEOs.
In 1978, WAICU began student access programming for prospective students and counselors. In 2002, the presidents launched the WAICU Collaboration Project as a way to help members control costs. WAICU has been recognized by the U.S. Congress in its report, the College Cost Crisis, for its “transformative” collaborative programs. In 2011, WAICU merged with the Wisconsin Foundation for Independent Colleges, which was established in 1954 to attract philanthropic support for Wisconsin’s private, nonprofit colleges and universities.
WAICU’s mission remains the same: “working together for educational opportunity.” Our top priority is financial aid to students from both the state and federal governments and from employers and foundations. For every service we provide, for every public policy issue for which we advocate, we ask “how does this advance educational opportunity?”
The reasons for WAICU’s success are clear. Although WAICU is now staffed and no longer operates by committee, it remains a presidential organization. Only presidents of member colleges and universities serve on the board of directors and are the final arbiters of policy. The presidents so cherish the collegiality with their fellow presidents that, after lengthy deliberations, they concluded that they would have no committees, but rather operate as a committee-of-the-whole. The presidents have authorized approximately 30 Groups (e.g., Chief Academic Officers) to meet under the WAICU umbrella. The WAICU Groups are cherished for sharing best practices and “intellectual capital,” but presidents remain the policymakers for WAICU. In 2003 the WAICU Benefits Consortium was incorporated, in 2004 the WAICU Educational Technology Consortium was incorporated, and in 2018 the WAICU Multiple Employer Retirement Plan Collaboration was formed. These affiliated organizations have boards appointed by the presidents of the participating colleges and universities and are supported by WAICU staff.
One WAICU chair often cited Tocqueville in saying that WAICU’s raison d’être is “self-interest right understood.” Another member president was asked by a business leader to define WAICU’s mission, and he replied, “WAICU is to represent presidents, to speak for presidents, and to do for presidents what they cannot do alone.” WAICU is an association, not a system. Member colleges and universities cherish their independence.
WAICU must always be a work in progress, but whatever it becomes, and whatever it achieves must be attributed to the college presidents.