The political momentum for converting the UW System from a state agency into a public authority has continued to stall in the wake of the March 5 Board of Regents meeting. Not two weeks ago, the public authority conversion appeared as unopposed by major players in the UW System and state government as it was unsupported by evidence or argument. By the end of this past week, chancellors were publicly voicing their skepticism and prominent legislators were positioning themselves for the proposal’s anticipated demise and the budget negotiations that will now take place in its aftermath.
Most notably, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos made headlines on Thursday when he voiced his frustration with the Board of Regents. Vos took issue with the Board’s March 5 resolutions in support of tenure and shared governance, asking why the state should give the Regents greater autonomy (in the form of the public authority) when they are unwilling to make changes in this core area of the university’s operations. While faculty and others were understandably aghast, it seems that Vos’s comments were the product of nothing so much as his need to distance himself politically from the now seemingly doomed public authority proposal, which he had earlier championed. To be sure, it is a distressing measure of Vos and his political base that his face-saving move is to harangue the Regents over their unwillingness to smash one of the pillars of the university. But tough talk often rides in place of actual conviction, and while Vos is no doubt frustrated that the Regents have declined this particular bit of dirty work, it remains to be seen whether the legislature will pull the trigger when it will be their fingerprints alone on the gun.
In those same comments Thursday, Vos also indicated his desire in principle to reduce the size of the budget cuts for the UW and K-12 proposed by Scott Walker. Vos hasn’t passed up opportunities to state his differences with Walker in the past, and this was no exception. Walker is now fully consumed by his still-unofficial presidential campaign, to the point that even the Journal-Sentinel’s beat reporters don’t know which state he’s in on a given day. The jockeying for succession within the Wisconsin GOP is surely well under way. And while Vos’s prospects for governor are uncertain—the smart money would appear to be on Dale Kooyenga, the 36-year-old state representative from Brookfield (deepest WOW county), a certified public accountant and Iraq veteran who has risen rapidly from his election in 2010 to the vice-chairmanship of the powerful Joint Finance Committee—it is certainly interesting to see Vos draw a distinction between himself and Walker by moving to oppose the public authority and pointing out the undue largeness of Walker’s proposed cuts.
About those cuts: this past week also brought a first glimpse of what to expect if Walker’s proposed $300 million cut for 2015-17 becomes law. On Thursday, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt announced a buyout offer that would apply to over 300 faculty and staff. The week before, Schmidt testified alongside UW System President Ray Cross before the Joint Finance Committee of the legislature, speaking with disquieting zeal about the challenge of reshaping the university in the face of significant funding cuts. The buyout, of course, is the kind of thing that happens when academic strategy is dictated wholly by cost-cutting. At the JFC hearing, Schmidt used the metaphor of emptying out a basket and deciding what to put back in. For all the deliberation and strategic decision-making Schmidt’s metaphor is meant to suggest, the initial stage of the plan—in which as many as a quarter of the university’s employees are simply being invited to leave—looks more like flinging the entire institution against the wall and seeing what sticks.
With opposition to the public authority proposal now running the gamut from the Board of Regents to the Speaker of the Assembly (to say nothing of UW faculty, staff, students, and alumni), there has been a notable silence from the two figures most closely tied to the proposal: Scott Walker and Ray Cross. Walker is otherwise occupied; Cross will visit UWM for the campus’s public budget meeting on March 25. It will be interesting to see whether the public authority is anything close to a tenable proposition ten days from now. Surely even Cross, the public authority’s most ardent advocate, must know which way the wind blows.