Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


The Regent who wouldn’t leave

“[F]ixed terms of members of boards shall expire on May 1.” So says Wis. stat. 15.07(1)(c), the portion of state law that governs when the terms of state board members—including members of the UW System Board of Regents—come to an end. So it was curious to see that the UW System’s “Regent Bios” page, which is ordinarily kept assiduously up to date, continued to list John Behling, Regina Millner, and Ryan Ring as Regents until very late in May of this year. Behling continued to be listed as Regent President.

Millner and Behling served successive two-year stints as Regent President from 2015 to 2019. They were the first two appointees of former governor Scott Walker to serve as Regent President. Their presidencies were marked by a nearly nonstop state of outright calamity throughout the UW System: things that existed prior to 2015 but no longer do include real tenure for faculty; strong (not merely consultative) shared governance powers for faculty, staff, and students; more than $100 million in biennial funding from the state; nearly 15% of the UW-Milwaukee faculty; and the UW Colleges.

A less well-known but no less major change initiated in 2015 involved the way that UW System campuses select new chancellors. Under the previous policy, search and screen committees for chancellors had to be made up of at least half faculty from the campus in question, alongside staff, students, community members, and others. A Special Regent Committee was appointed to serve as liaison between the search committee and the full Board of Regents, which would ultimately appoint one of the finalists selected by the search committee.

Under the new policy (updated once again in 2017, before it was ever used), the Regents have taken over the entire process. Whereas chancellor search committees were previously unlimited in size, they now contain exactly ten members: five Regents, two faculty, one staff member, one student, and one community member. The Special Regent Committee remains, though its role is far less clear under the new system, and in both of the chancellor searches that have taken place so far the Special Regent Committee has consisted of the same five Regents who serve on the search committee.

The first chancellor search conducted under the new regime took place at UW-Whitewater. It was a mess from the start. The former chancellor resigned abruptly a week before Christmas last year, forced out by the Regents and System President Ray Cross in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal involving her husband. Rather than wait until the normal academic hiring cycle to search for a replacement, the Regents barrelled ahead immediately, with predictable results: two of the four finalists dropped out of the search, one of the remaining finalists was the interim chancellor whom Cross had initially decreed would be ineligible for the permanent position, and the faculty were so egregiously sidelined that it prompted an open letter of protest from the UW-Whitewater Faculty Senate and resolutions of support from governance bodies around the System.

This brings us back to our lingering Regents. Despite the rush, the Whitewater search process spilled into May, past the expiration of Regina Millner’s term as Regent. Millner was a Regent member of the Whitewater search committee and a member the Special Regent Committee, and she appears to have continued to take part in those committees’ deliberations and votes after May 1. It’s unclear whether she (or Behling or Ring) took part in the subsequent full Board of Regents vote, which was described simply as “unanimous.”

Unfortunately, Millner’s policy-bending decision to linger on the search committee past the expiration of her Regent term is not isolated. In what can only be described as a brazen act of clinging to power, John Behling appointed himself to the chancellor search committee at UW-Stout less than a month before his term on the Board expired. The Stout search is barely under way and Behling’s term as Regent ended over a month ago, but the latest Regent committee list names Behling as a “Regent Emeritus” member of the Special Regent Committee for the UW-Stout search.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a Regent Emeritus. John Behling is no more a Regent Emeritus than I am a Regent-in-Waiting. This is a silly, made-up title that is being used to justify Behling’s lawless insistence on remaining on the search committee. Wisconsin law says that John Behling is no longer a Regent. Regent policy says that the search committee and Special Regent Committee need five Regents. Behling himself helped craft the policy as Regent Vice President and Regent President! This isn’t complicated.

Whatever one thinks of Behling’s legacy as Regent President, his refusal to depart presents a crisis of governance for the UW System that should alarm everyone. The Board of Regents has arrogated to itself the power to conduct chancellor searches, but it is willing to bend the rules to allow a former Regent to have a hand in doing the people of Wisconsin’s work. This is simply wrong. The Board of Regents consists of the members it consists of, not the members its current and former leadership might wish it consisted of. It is hard not to see connections with other recent instances where Wisconsin Republicans have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new Democratic governor, and taken legally dubious steps to blunt his power. John Behling is no longer a Regent because Scott Walker lost his bid for reelection. By permitting Behling to remain on the chancellor search committee for UW-Stout, the Board of Regents is acting out the fantasy of a Walker victory. His behavior, as well as that of the Board, is scandalous.

This story has yet to garner much media attention, despite the fact that state board appointments have been a major point of contention in connection with the ongoing litigation over last year’s lame-duck legislation. Indeed, Behling himself took a pointed (and highly inappropriate) political stand against the new governor in April, when he insisted on the validity of two Regent appointments that had been enjoined by a judge, and allowed those Regents to participate in the Board’s April meeting.

The Board of Regents needs to rectify this situation immediately. Behling is obviously without shame and will not step down; anyone who would step down in this situation never would have appointed himself in the first place. The Board must remove him. If the Board has even a minimal interest in appearing non-partisan, it would be wise to name one of the new Evers appointees as his replacement on the Stout search committee and Special Regent Committee. Even if not, there is simply no justification for allowing John Behling to continue to serve. The Board is inexplicably allowing a former member to create a governance crisis that will only further erode confidence in the UW System from all sides.

Over the past several years, the Regents have continually professed a need to win the confidence of the public. Once again, they are failing.