Gov. Scott Walker has had a bigger impact on Wisconsin’s public universities than any governor in decades, and he is among the most aggressive governors in the country in reshaping higher education, experts say.
Walker has cut funding for the University of Wisconsin System by hundreds of millions of dollars, frozen undergraduate tuition and approved legislation that shifts power on UW campuses toward administrators and away from faculty, while also weakening those professors’ protections from layoffs.
The governor’s influence has also extended into the administration of the UW System, which has hired a longtime friend and political confidant to one of its top positions and is governed by a Board of Regents made up almost entirely of his appointees.
Noel Radomski, an expert on the history of the UW System, said Walker’s influence on higher education has been greater than any Wisconsin governor since Patrick Lucey merged UW-Madison with the rest of the System in the 1970s.
The new tenure policy, changes Walker sought to the UW System’s mission statement and pushes to cut regulation of the for-profit college industry have made him one of the most active governors in the country on higher education topics, said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“Walker has sought to redefine the foundational policies and practices of universities,” Harnisch said. “I can think of no other governor who has pursued all of those policy changes in recent years.”
According to Democrats, supporters of the UW System and many of its faculty, the changes that Walker has pushed for and signed into law have been disastrous.
Former Regent David Walsh, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, said the current leaders of state government, Walker chief among them, are “as bad as we’ve ever had” for UW.
But for Republicans and those who support changes to public higher education, Walker’s legislative accomplishments have been necessary reforms to ensure UW serves Wisconsin residents and the state’s economy.
“We’re working to have more of a market-based approach where we’re more responsive to the private sector,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester. “There’s a long way to go, but we’ve started the journey.”
A ‘philosophical shift’
Walker declined a request for an interview to discuss his vision for higher education in Wisconsin. Spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said he has sought to “make college more affordable while helping students get career-ready earlier.”
“Walker’s top priority for higher education reform has been on helping Wisconsin students and working families to afford a great college education,” Patrick said. “Connecting students and workers with the skills needed in today’s workforce is an important economic development initiative.”
According to Patrick, the four-year freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition championed by Walker and the Legislature has saved students thousands of dollars, given the rate at which tuition costs had been rising at UW institutions. Walker has also worked with UW System officials to push for changes that reduce the time it takes students to get a degree, Patrick said.
Wisconsin’s technical colleges have traditionally focused on job training, Radomski said. But Walker has pushed the UW System to make preparing students for the workforce a higher priority, Radomski said, with less of an emphasis on research or broader undergraduate education.
“The governor’s goal for higher education is very narrow, and it also doesn’t stress a lot of the strengths of UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee,” Radomski said.
One case in which that philosophy was evident, Radomski said, was in the attempt by Walker’s administration to change the UW System’s mission.
The governor’s 2015-17 budget proposal removed language from the UW mission statement that referred to pursuing truth and improving the human condition, and replaced it with a reference to the system existing “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”
The proposal prompted a huge backlash from UW System officials and alumni. Walker later backed away from the idea, saying it was the result of a miscommunication in his administration, but for many it symbolized Walker’s approach to the System and higher education in general.
Walker is far from alone in using his position to influence higher education — Republican governors in particular have sought to reshape public universities in Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas and Kentucky, while Democrats in Oregon have made changes as well.
But Walker has been especially successful in changing the UW System thanks to the Republican-dominated Legislature, Radomski said.
Some of the changes during Walker’s administration were proposals he introduced, such as cuts to UW System funding and requiring System employees to contribute to their pensions and health care as part of the 2011 Act 10. Others — the weakening of faculty tenure protections and changes to shared governance that gave more power to administrators, for instance — were introduced by Republican legislators and ultimately signed by Walker.
Among professors and in higher education circles nationally, Harnisch said, “Wisconsin has gained a reputation as having a Legislature and a governor that are hostile to the mission and values of public colleges and universities.”
UW administration affected, too
Walker’s impact on the UW System extends beyond the budget and policy changes.
UW officials in 2014 chose Jim Villa, former chief of staff in Walker’s Milwaukee county executive office and a longtime friend of the governor, to lead the System’s Office of University Relations, which manages state and federal lobbying efforts, as well as communications. Villa also declined to be interviewed for this story.
Just over five years into the Walker administration, the UW System’s Board of Regents is now dominated by his appointees. When Regents Charles Pruitt and Jose Delgado finish their terms at the end of April, all but three of the board’s 18 members will have been appointed by Walker.
Critics say the current board has been unusually hesitant to criticize proposals from Walker or the Legislature and is too closely tied to the governor’s office.
“I’ve never seen the Board of Regents politicized the way it is,” said Rep. Terese Berceau, a Madison Democrat on the Assembly’s higher education committee. “They clearly have some Walker crusaders.”
Walsh, whose term on the board ended last summer, sharply criticized the Regents for not launching a more public campaign to reduce the $250 million budget cut the UW System took in the 2015-17 budget. The board also declined to weigh in on the changes to tenure and shared governance in that budget, despite vocal opposition from faculty.
“It’s just a different Board of Regents,” Walsh said, recalling how Gov. Tommy Thompson used to complain that Republican appointees would “go rogue” and defend the university once they became Regents.
“The old Board of Regents was more independent of the governor; the new Board of Regents doesn’t think you should criticize the decision-makers,” Walsh said.
Regent President Regina Millner did not return messages seeking a response to Walsh and Berceau’s comments.
Impact will be felt
Critics and supporters of Walker’s approach to higher education agree the breadth of changes to the UW System and size of budget cuts mean the governor will have a lasting impact on Wisconsin’s public universities.
“It will be a long time before we can crawl out of that hole,” Walsh said of cuts to the UW System, which has seen its annual funding reduced by $282.8 million over Walker’s three state budgets.
UW officials and professors have made dire warnings that those cuts and weakened tenure protections have harmed the system’s reputation nationally and threaten to reduce the quality of its institutions.
But Vos says those fears have been overstated and said he hasn’t seen “any data” to show UW’s quality is suffering.
UW-Madison administrators have seen an increase in the number of their faculty who are entertaining outside job offers this year — one result, they say, of other universities seeing UW as vulnerable to raids of top faculty and professors being more willing to leave the university after the changes under Walker’s administration. By mid-March, the number of retention cases in the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science this academic year was more than double the number the college saw last year.
Walsh predicted the negative effects of Walker’s changes will be borne out in the amount of federal research funding UW-Madison professors bring into the university in years to come.
Although faculty have resisted the changes, Vos said the Legislature and Walker have worked to strike a balance that ensures UW System schools provide a quality education while staying affordable for students and their families.
“I think sometimes a big, unwieldy institution like the university is very resistant to change,” Vos said. “That’s part of why the controversy has happened.”