Overlooking objections raised by its Democratic minority, the Wisconsin state Senate confirmed Gov. Scott Walker's appointment of Michael M. Grebe to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents in a party-line vote Tuesday.
Walker appointed Grebe, an attorney, to a seven-year term on the board. Grebe is the son of Michael W. Grebe, Walker's campaign co-chairman and the president of the conservative Bradley Foundation.
The younger Grebe is executive vice president of HUSCO International, a Waukesha-based manufacturer of hydraulic and electrohydraulic components.
"Michael is a valuable addition to the UW System Board of Regents," Walker said in a statement. "His leadership skills, coupled with his diverse professional knowledge and expertise in corporate and business law, will undoubtedly serve the Board of Regents well as they work to establish rules and policies for the efficient governing of the UW System."
Speaking before a Senate committee last week, Grebe said he believes the state contributes sufficient funds to the UW System. He also suggested that some UW campuses could eliminate certain degree programs if they are available at other locations, likening the system to a manufacturing business.
"If you work at a company that has multiple manufacturing locations, you might not do the same thing at every single one of those locations, because your customer base may be different," Grebe told the panel, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. "You may specialize in one area or another on certain products or types of operations and processes."
Senate Democrats on Tuesday said those comments are "troubling" and show that Grebe is unprepared to serve on the Board of Regents.
"His comments to me suggest that his philosophy of running government like a business has jumped the shark," said Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. "Universities are not businesses, they are not manufacturing plants. They exist to provide our citizens with an education."
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said Wisconsin needs a Board of Regents that will "stand up to Gov. Walker" and fight to preserve the quality of the state's public universities and keep higher education affordable and accessible.
She argued that the Board of Regents is not a place for its members to receive "on-the-job training."
"Unfortunately, putting more of Gov. Walker's close, personal friends and campaign supporters on the Board of Regents will only weaken its authority and leave Wisconsin students and families behind at a time when we need to be able to lift up this university system and campuses and the sons and daughters of Wisconsin to be to be able to afford a quality education," Shilling said.
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, knocked Grebe for his father's organization, which funds and supports a variety of conservative causes including voucher school expansion, public benefit reform and anti-union policies. Larson argued that the group has "for the last 20 years wanted to shut down our university system and turn it over to private organizations."
Husco International's executive chairman, Gus Ramirez, is leading the charge to build a $60 million private Christian or public charter school in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this weekend.
Discussion of that proposal follows a motion recently approved by the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee that would allow the UW System to authorize charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee.
The liberal group One Wisconsin Now noted that the Bradley Foundation has spent more than $31 million since 2001 on efforts to support the expansion of voucher schools.
Democrats in the Senate portrayed Grebe's confirmation as representative of all changes and cuts being proposed for the UW System by state Republicans.
"The damage isn't going to be done. It's already happened," Shilling said. "It's happening right now."