The following is a guest posting from Harry Peterson, a UW-Madison administrator from 1978-1990, Chief of Staff to Chancellor Donna Shalala from 1988-1990. Harry is also President Emeritus, Western State College of Colorado, Gunnison, Colorado
The demand for Professor Bill Cronon’s emails by the Wisconsin Republican Party prompted the UW System Board of Regents to review its support for academic freedom throughout its history. At its April board meeting the Regents again was emphatic in its interest in continuing that tradition. This received virtually no notice in the media because it was not news. The Board of Regents has been supporting academic freedom throughout its history. It is one of its most important legacies. The board has done such a good job it is taken for granted.
We know in our personal lives and in public policy that decisions can have unintended and unanticipated consequences, sometimes with tragic results. Goals that are pursued sometimes have the opposite result. The proposal by Chancellor Martin and Governor Walker to create an independent authority for the UW-Madison, in the name of autonomy, will result in outcomes that are the opposite of the independence the Chancellor seeks.
There are several reasons why our autonomy at the UW-Madison will be decreased. This post addresses one of them.
On May 1 the terms of two members of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents will expire and Governor Walker will nominate two people to serve seven year terms on the Board. (Also, two student Regents who will serve shorter terms.) Those individuals will appear before the Senate Education Committee. It will be an opportunity for Senators to ask these nominees about their understanding of higher education and support for academic freedom and tenure, research on climate change and evolution. They can also be asked about whether they support stem cell research, and if they believe that the UW Medical School should continue to train its students in abortion procedures. They will surely be asked their position on political parties soliciting emails from faculty members.
The Senate Education Committee will then make a recommendation to the full Senate about whether to confirm these individuals to serve as members of the Board of Regents.
These two new Regents will join a seasoned Board of Regents who have learned, through years of service, about the complexities of higher education and the traditions of public higher education in Wisconsin.
After July 1, if the Biddy Martin/Scott Walker proposal for the UW-Madison to leave the UW System becomes law, Governor Walker will appoint 11 members of the newly created board of trustees. This appointments will be made by the Governor knowing they will not be subject to a public hearing and subjected to the questions the Board of Regents members might have been asked. These individuals will immediately constitute a majority of the board.
The Scott Walker board will likely support significant tuition increases, consistent with the conservative philosophy of smaller government, with an emphasis on individual responsibility to pay for benefits they receive. If the next governor is a Democrat the new governor will have a majority in his or her first term. That liberal board will undoubtedly focus on access to higher education, and will very likely oppose significant tuition increases. Long terms of service are designed to prevent this kind of abrupt policy reversal. That is why the UW System Board of Regents have seven year terms. Even if the number of years per term is increased, the current language reflects an alarming lack of understanding of public higher education by the people who proposed it.
The Scott Walker board members will not become part of a governing body that has a tradition of almost 40 years of supporting academic freedom. They will establish their own traditions and will do so in a climate of unprecedented mistrust and partisanship. The UW-Madison, in its quest for greater autonomy, will have left behind a board which has defended academic freedom for almost 40 years.
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited our country in the 1830s he marveled at the democratic traditions that had already been established here. He called them “habits of the heart.” Academic freedom is a “habit of the heart” for the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. They have done it so well we take it for granted. The new board will inherit the language from Chapter 36 of the Wisconsin Statutes, but none of the tradition of the people who served before them.
If the Biddy Martin/Scott Walker proposal becomes law, the UW-Madison will have become “independent” from the other UW System universities, its legislative allies, and will have also gained “independence” from a strong and supportive Board of Regents.
It will acquire a different kind of dependence. Because of the appointment of majority of board members by Scott Walker, without Senate review and confirmation, it will have become much closer to and dependent upon the current and future Governors.