Gov. Scott Walker is considering whether to give the University of Wisconsin System more autonomy and reduce legislative oversight of how it raises and spends money.
Such a proposal, possibly contained in the governor’s 2015-17 budget plan to be introduced Feb. 3, would echo a 2011 proposal to split UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System that ultimately failed and led to the departure of Biddy Martin, the Madison chancellor who along with Walker championed the split.
A spokeswoman for Walker on Friday declined to confirm or deny that discussions were underway about the idea, although Walker referenced a possible budget proposal this week at a Building Commission meeting.
A spokesman for UW-Madison deferred comment to UW System officials. A UW System spokeswoman deferred to the governor’s office. UW System president Ray Cross did not return a phone call.
But an aide to a top Republican lawmaker who strongly opposed the UW-Madison proposal the first time said his office has been contacted by university officials in recent weeks amid whispers that the proposal is under consideration by the governor’s office.
“While the governor’s office hasn’t told anyone specifically, the System and UW-Madison are out lobbying on it,” said Mike Mikalsen, an aide to Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater. Nass, formerly a state representative who chaired the Assembly higher education committee, is now vice chairman of the Senate’s higher education committee. He’s been a vocal critic of the System.
Mikalsen said the most persistent rumbling of late is that the universities would operate as a public authority, with the state playing a much reduced role in overseeing hiring practices, construction bids and other internal matters that university officials have long said could be done more efficiently and cheaply with more autonomy. The trade-off would come in reduced state aid, Mikalsen said.
The proposal, if introduced, would put the universities under a similar governance structure as UW Hospital.
It is sure to meet opposition once again.
“This absolutely deserves more study and should be done independent of the budget,” said Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. “The devil is definitely in the details.”
Hansen is the assistant minority leader in the Senate and the top-ranking Democrat on the higher education committee. Like most lawmakers of both parties, he said he had not heard even a whisper about the idea prior to being asked by a reporter on Friday.
Mikalsen said Nass would again strongly oppose any split.
“Anyone who supports decoupling is not concerned about student debt,” he said, pointing out that the Legislature called for a freeze on student tuition across the System in the last budget cycle, which will likely be extended for the next two years.
Prior to the freeze, System students had been hit with 5.5 percent annual tuition hikes each of the previous six years, the maximum allowed under state law. The Legislature may lose the authority to control student costs if the universities go it alone.
Two other sources with knowledge of the situation, both within the UW System and outside it, confirmed on Friday that discussions on the topic have been occurring between university officials and lawmakers. They asked not to be named because they’re not authorized to speak about internal System business.
Walker, who was re-elected to a second term in November, will release details of his 2015-2017 budget Feb. 3. Cross has asked state lawmakers for a funding boost of $95 million in the next two-year budget, a request that Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, called “a tough sell.” The state faces a projected $2.2 billion budget deficit.
Although Walker’s office declined Friday to comment on the idea, the governor himself hinted at possible UW System changes this week at a meeting of the State Building Commission, which he chairs.
In response to a comment from Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, expressing frustration over why a new dormitory at UW-Oshkosh has yet to break ground, Walker replied:
“Just as a good preview with three weeks to go in the budget. ... There will be a significant discussion. Particularly because for years we’ve heard from the University of Wisconsin in particular, not just in this administration but in prior administrations, about the frustration with the pace, not just with this, there are myriad other issues out there. We’re looking at ways we can help (expedite) that, put more power into their hands and operate on that pace that you mentioned.”
The UW System is made up of 13 four-year institutions and 13 two-year schools, known as the UW Colleges, and the statewide UW-Extension. It is governed by the UW Board of Regents, an 18-member board, of which all but two are appointed by the governor. It was the product of merging two former systems in 1971: the University of Wisconsin campuses with the former Wisconsin State University campuses.
The 2011 proposal to split UW-Madison from the System came in Walker’s first budget cycle as governor, when the System saw its funding cut by $250 million. Then-chancellor Martin and Walker said it made fiscal sense to split the state’s flagship campus from the other 25 schools in the System, arguing the university needed the new structure in the face of declining state aid.
Walker included the change in the state budget, but lawmakers removed it after an outcry from UW System leaders. The entire System stayed together and in years since gained some administrative flexibility called for by chancellors.
Even after the proposal died in 2011, Walker said he’d keep pushing for a split for UW-Madison.
“We pushed till we were blue in the face, or red in the face, on that one. Badger red,” Walker then told the State Journal editorial board. “We’ll still keep pushing.”
Reporters Mary Spicuzza and Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.