Two members of the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents are running in closely watched, competitive political races this fall, but both members say their work on the board overseeing Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities will not take a back seat to their campaign.
November’s gubernatorial election pits incumbent Gov. Scott Walker against State Superintendent Tony Evers who, by nature of his position, automatically serves as a Regent and is willing to cast a dissenting vote among a group almost entirely appointed by Walker.
Included in the group of Walker appointees is Janesville lawyer Bryan Steil, who is the Republican nominee in the 1st Congressional District for a seat being vacated by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. He faces Caledonia ironworker Randy Bryce.
The Washington Post put the Walker vs. Evers matchup on its list of the top 10 governor’s races and The New York Times placed Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District race among the most competitive U.S. House races.
“The next several months are bound to be interesting and we’ll be watching you closely,” System president Ray Cross said at last week’s regents meeting in Madison. He congratulated both on their primary wins earlier this month.
Both Evers and Steil said in interviews that their work on the regents will remain a priority in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election.
Their situation lacks a historical comparison, at least in recent regent history, according to those who have followed the Board of Regents through the years.
Tom Loftus, a former regent and Democratic Assembly speaker, said he cannot recall another regent running for political office in at least the last three decades. He pointed to a slightly different scenario — current Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, serving as a student regent from 1989 to 1991 — but that was before Vos joined the Legislature in 2004.
Vos also said through a spokeswoman that he could not recall another regent running for office in the past several decades.
Evers and Steil cast the sole dissenting votes last week against the System’s proposed 2019-21 budgets — Evers opposed the operating budget, while Steil disagreed with the capital budget. Both budgets passed and will go to the state for approval.
“Frankly, not much will change,” Evers said of his regent work during his gubernatorial campaign. “I’ve always been an advocate for the students.”
He speculated, however, that some people will “read into what I say at regent meetings.”
Steil said he did not see his campaign as something that would take away from his work on the board.
“I look forward to continuing to work in my capacity as a regent, advocating what I think are policies in the best interest of students,” Steil said. “I don’t see a time restriction … You balance it out.”
Steil said he has visited all 13 of the System’s four-year campuses and serves as regent liaison to UW-Superior, which is about 360 miles from Janesville.
Steil was present at each of the 24 regular meetings held from his appointment to the board in June 2016 through April 2018, according to meeting minutes.
Evers — who is the longest-serving current board member — has missed 21 of the 121 regular meetings held since his appointment to the board in July 2009 through April 2018, according to meeting minutes.
Evers’ 83 percent attendance rate for regular meetings is about the same as president John Robert Behling, who is the third longest-serving regent on the current board. Gerald Whitburn,the second-longest serving board member, has a 94 percent attendance rate and Regina Millner, who joined the board at the same time as Behling, has a 100 percent attendance rate.
Behling, who declined to be interviewed, said in a statement sent through a System spokeswoman: “The Board of Regents has a long history of members who are very engaged in their communities, the state and beyond. I am confident all members of the Board will remain focused on our important role of protecting and advancing the University of Wisconsin System.”