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Scott Walker handshake
Gov.-elect Scott Walker shakes hands with UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells during his visit to a UW System Board of Regents meeting in Van Hise Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

Two days after the election, Gov.-elect Scott Walker was greeted with wide smiles, warm handshakes and a standing ovation during a short stop at the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents meeting.

Walker returned the love by telling the regents gathered at UW-Madison that “this is truly one of the greatest university systems in the world, not just the country. It’s an honor to be here today.”

But he soon got down to business, making it clear that with the state’s massive budget hole, university leaders would be asked to do more with less.

“It isn’t just always about more money,” Walker said, noting that leaders would need to be flexible, innovative and creative to get the most out of limited resources.

Some believe any more cuts in state funding to the UW System will do significant harm to its 13 universities and 13 two-year colleges, but UW System leaders would be wise to start preparing for the worst, says Noel Radomski.

“State agencies — and we’re a state agency — are all going to have to share in the economic pain,” says the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, a higher ed think tank on the UW-Madison campus. “We all know that postsecondary education always loses when there is a recession — and especially when there is a recession and a very large structural budget deficit. And it doesn’t matter if Republicans or Democrats are in charge.”

Walker did reach out to the regents, noting that he wants the UW System to play a more prominent role in helping to bring companies to the state. He said he’d like to have colleges and universities at the table each time the state reaches out to a business hoping to expand or relocate here.

“I think it’s good he sees the university as part of the solution,” says Chuck Pruitt, the president of the Board of Regents. “What we’ve tried to communicate is the university isn’t a partisan issue. It’s about trying to partner together to grow the state, to grow the state’s economy. I thought (Walker’s) comments were encouraging and indicated a willingness to work together, and that’s great.”

What, exactly, the shift in the state’s political landscape and a budget deficit that could top $3 billion means for the UW System isn’t clear. Following are four items to keep tabs on moving forward.

Badger Partnership

UW System leaders and UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin have spent the past several months telling lawmakers that state universities can no longer be run as though they’re just another state agency.

Martin’s plan, which she calls the Badger Partnership, would grant UW-Madison more flexibility by loosening some of the oversight strings currently controlled by the state and Board of Regents.

Martin says she would like the university to gain the freedom to manage its own construction projects, oversee more of its own purchasing and step outside state pay plans to reward outstanding faculty and staff. She also wants the university to have the flexibility to set its own tuition rates, and to use some of that money to fund more need-based aid. The regents currently set tuition for schools across the system, and that money can’t be used for student aid.

“These are ideas that (Walker) has told me he is open to and I’m optimistic we will get some of the flexibilities,” says UW System President Kevin Reilly.

Some, however, are concerned that if the UW does cut some oversight strings that state leaders will simply cut more funding.

“We need both stable funding and flexibility,” says UW System spokesman David Giroux. “We’re not asking for the moon, we’re asking for stability. And we’re not asking for complete autonomy, we’re asking for freedom to operate like a smart business.”

Nass-ty relationship?

Not only did Democrats lose the governor’s seat in the midterm elections, they also relinquished power in both chambers of the state Legislature.

Among other things, that means education committee chairs will go to Republicans — opening the door for Rep. Steve Nass of Whitewater to again be chairman of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee. And Nass, who rarely misses an opportunity to bash the UW System, is interested in regaining that title.

It will be interesting to see if Republican leaders go with a chair they know will be contentious or appoint leadership that is more supportive of the UW System.

If Nass regains that seat, his spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, told the Cap Times on Election Day that his boss would push for capping tuition hikes while also reducing wages for those who work in the UW System.

“A lot of people get paid big bucks, and they are never in the classrooms,” Mikalsen said. “Unfortunately, fee increases go to paying for these people. That’s why middle-class families are being squeezed out of the university system.”

Such statements are ill-informed, says Giroux.

“I’d say, ‘Look at the facts,’” says Giroux. “Our administrative expenses in this public university system are extraordinarily low when compared to any comparable system. So when people say they want to help us look for ways to cut, we’re willing to look but let’s start with a fair and objective examination of the facts.”

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Also keep an eye on how well Walker and the regents ultimately get along. Gov. Jim Doyle appointed all the regents except Tony Evers, who gets an automatic spot as the head of the Department of Public Instruction. Three of the 18 regents’ terms are up in 2011.

Stem cell research

For the first time since UW-Madison researcher Jamie Thomson became the first person to isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1998, both the governor’s seat and both chambers of Wisconsin’s state Legislature will be controlled by Republicans.

Conservative groups such as Pro-Life Wisconsin are publicly calling for candidates it supported to oppose funding for embryonic stem cell research. In addition, Walker said during his campaign he opposed state funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The good news for scientists is that no state funding goes toward stem cell research, which mostly is backed by the federal government.

Nonetheless, some on the UW-Madison campus are terrified of what any legislation related to this issue could mean.

“It would be a huge blow,” says John Wiley, the former UW-Madison chancellor who currently is the interim director of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. “It just sends a message to the rest of the country, ‘This place is run by rubes.’ It’s an anti-intellectual environment that people would not want to be a part of. So it would really hurt our recruiting. And in all fields, not just stem cell research.”

Another furlough furor?

The prospect of a $3 billion state budget hole means the question for the UW System is not whether it will have to absorb cuts, but rather where it will cut and how deep.

Walker has said he’d like to have state workers start contributing to their state pensions. It also appears likely he’ll mandate state workers take even more furlough days than the 16 that Doyle implemented during the 2009-11 biennium.

Whether Walker will include all university employees in his furlough plans, even those paid through private gifts or federal grants, remains to be seen. Doyle did and was roundly criticized for it. At UW-Madison alone, an estimated 6,000 full-time employees are paid with non-state funds. Furloughing these workers saves the state no money and, in fact, costs it cash because these workers have less spending money and will pay less in state income taxes.

“These are tough times and tough decisions will have to be made,” acknowledges the UW System’s Reilly. “So our obligation is to be partners and be supportive when we can, while also clearly and strongly stating our case for why this university system is an incredibly important asset to the state.”