Michael T. Jones told state lawmakers last week that if he is confirmed as a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, he has asked to be “walled off” from the work his law firm is doing to defend the UW-Oshkosh Foundation in a lawsuit brought by the board.
“I’ll also ask the Board of Regents to recuse me from any discussion about the lawsuit,” Jones told members of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges last Wednesday.
The committee held a public hearing on the appointment of Jones, who spent years as a lawyer for Miller Brewing in Milwaukee before joining Michael Best and Friedrich, and Green Bay area banker Robert B. Atwell to the Board of Regents by Gov. Scott Walker.
The pair, each with a track record of contributions to Republican campaigns or conservative causes, would replace Jim Doyle appointees Edward Manydeeds and Mark Bradley, leaving Tony Evers as the lone member of the governing board of the state’s public university system not appointed by Walker. Evers by law serves ex-officio and continues on the board by virtue of his recent reelection to a third term as state superintendent of schools.
The legislative committee will send the appointments to the state Senate for confirmation. Both men would serve terms expiring in May, 2024.
Each pointed to affordability as a chief challenge for the university system.
Jones told Senate committee members he could not say how long the lawsuit — which accuses the UW-Oshkosh former chancellor and former chief business officer of improperly using the university’s funding and credit to finance real estate projects for the foundation — might keep him from fully participating as a regent.
The genial Jones, who became the “face” of Miller during his tenure as the general counsel, vice president for community affairs and spokesman, told legislators he would often test the pulse of the operation by going to the brewery cafeteria to talk with the people who worked for the company.
It is important for board members to get outside the “paneled room,” he said.
“Too many students come out with their degrees and $30,000 worth of debt, Jones said. "Or worse yet, they drop out after a couple of years with debt and have less ability to earn income.”
Jones completed his undergraduate work at UW-Madison before attending Marquette Law School.
“I am often an admirer of the UW System, its institutions and its people,” he said. “But I will not be afraid as a regent to be a critic and an advocate for change if it is warranted.”
Jones was a frequent contributor to Republican election efforts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics' website OpenSecrets.org, Jones gave at or near the federal limit of $5,000 a year for much of the early 2000s to the brewing company’s political action committee, which gave to both Democratic and Republican candidates, but typically more to Republicans.
Jones also contributed $15,000 to the National Republican Committee in both 2013 and 2014.
Contributions to individual candidates included: $2,500 to Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in 2011 and in 2012; $1,000 to Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin Ron Johnson in each of the years 2010, 2013 and 2016; and $3,000 over 2011 and 2012 to former Republican Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson for his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Democrat Herb Kohl.
Atwell is chief executive officer of Nicolet Bankshares, parent company of Nicolet National Bank, the community bank he founded.
He told legislative committee members that he has a “layman’s” knowledge of UW System affairs. Atwell has a couple of windows into the issues, however. Not only is he a father of 11 children, six of whom have gone to or are now attending UW campuses, his father Robert H. Atwell was vice chancellor of administration at UW-Madison from 1965 to 1970.
“It’s been a kitchen table thing for me,” he said of discussion of university issues.
He summarized the discussion he has heard of late about challenges to the UW System into three issues: cost, quality and access.
Atwell spoke with passion of the bank customers he saw struggle through the recent deep recession.
“They made extraordinarily hard decisions about what they did not need to continue and what things they needed to invest in more if they could scrape up the money,” he recalled. “It was gut wrenching.”
Atwell also expressed frustration — in response to a question from committee chair Sen. Sheila Harsdorf about an exodus of instructors from UW after a series of cuts in state funding — with the people working in higher education.
“The difficulty of having the education sector own the experience of what is happening to the taxpayers around them and realize that is has some implication for them,” he said.
As far as a continued tuition freeze or the 5 percent reduction Walker has proposed, those are clumsy ways to avoid the difficult discussions around cost, quality and access, he said.
“I do think what we have done with student loan debt is an injustice to the next generation,” said Atwell, who was deliberate in his manner during the hearing. “I don’t think further subsidizing student loans is the answer. Growth in student loan debt represents the refusal of our generation to deal with responsibilities of efficiency and effectiveness of the system; and also maybe a lack of generosity.”
He said he supports Walker’s budget proposal — removed from the budget by members of the Joint Finance Committee — to allow students to opt out of some fees.
For Atwell, it is a matter of supporting people’s right to act in conscience, he said. “I want to protect the right of people to hold true to their core beliefs.”
Atwell serves on the board of a Catholic hospital and is a founder of Relevant Radio, a Green Bay-based Catholic radio network with 22 stations. He is involved in pro-life activities and contributed $2,000 to the Pro-Life Super PAC in 2012, according to the OpenSecrets website.
When asked Wednesday by a reporter if he supported an Assembly bill that would prohibit physicians at UW School of Medicine and Public Health from contracting with Planned Parenthood to provide abortions, Atwell said he would not comment because he had not read the bill.
“My public positions are my public positions,” he said.
Atwell also donated $2,700 to Scott Walker in 2015, as the governor made a short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He donated $2,000 to conservative former congressman Mark Neumann in an unsuccessful 2011 bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Atwell also donated $7,400 from 2011 to 2015 to Reid Ribble, the recently retired conservative U.S. representative for Green Bay’s 8th District. Ribble was a staunch “Never Trump” Republican in the run-up to the presidential election.
Atwell also contributed $1,000 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin in May 2016, as the party leadership began urging members to unite behind Donald Trump as their presidential candidate.
Free speech, which some state legislators contend is under attack with the unwillingness to let conservative voices be heard at UW-Madison, has emerged as an issue in university funding debates.
Atwell, a graduate of Beloit College, shared with legislators his dismay at the political correctness he encountered as a graduate student at Yale School of Management.
“There were a lot of things it was not okay to say and I learned the code pretty quickly,” Atwell recalled.