Editorial: UW regents failing to defend higher education and should be replaced | Editorial

Casual observers of the 2018 Wisconsin gubernatorial race may have been surprised when state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers announced last week that he can’t wait to replace members of the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents.

But anyone who has been paying attention to the mess that the current regents have made of everything they have touched will understand the sense of urgency that Evers, a regent and a Democratic gubernatorial contender, brings to the work of renewing higher education in Wisconsin.

Evers, as the elected superintendent of public instruction, has for the better part of a decade been the most accountable and responsible member of the board. He has seen the other regents — most of whom are cronies of Gov. Scott Walker — break faith with the most basic premises of the Wisconsin Idea in order to advance an agenda of downsizing and diminishing what has historically been one of the great state university systems in the nation.

These regents have betrayed the promise of the system they are supposed to preserve by embracing an ill-conceived scheme to radically restructure the system by making Wisconsin’s two-year UW Colleges branch campuses of four-year universities. The “plan” was criticized by faculty and student groups, former UW officials, and elected leaders from around the state as shortsighted — especially in an era when the demands for retraining in a new economy are likely to make the two-year campuses more necessary — and particularly damaging to rural communities and small cities.

Evers opposed the scheme because of his deep understanding of issues in higher education, and because of his long-term commitment to maintaining the UW System as the national and international leader it has historically been.

But Evers was joined by only one other member of the board, Regent Janice Mueller, in voting “no.” Mueller, a former state auditor, explained at the time of the November 2017 vote: “We have to be deliberative, and I don’t know if we’ve had enough time to really study this proposal. There’s very little detail in the proposal; there’s nothing in terms of revenues or expenses.”

The rest of the board should have listened to Evers and Mueller, who worked for many years with the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and who also served as a fiscal analyst with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

They failed to do so.

Unfortunately, that’s how the majority of the regents operate. They do not listen. They do not base their decisions on the facts. They lack even the most basic vision for the future. And they have proven, again and again, that they are more than willing to let the UW System decline.

Actions being taken by the regents right now threaten to accelerate that decline.

Evers highlighted the issues last week, when he joined a protest over plans to cut 13 liberal arts majors at UW-Stevens Point. (The protest also focused on the unconscionable $250 million cut the system took in the 2015-2017 state budget.)

Evers warns that the elimination of the liberal arts majors at UW-Stevens Point could trigger systemwide liberal art cuts. He is right about that. And he is right to reject the absurd justifications for the cuts as nothing more than BS conjured up by the majority of regents to cover for their failure to fight for adequate funding of the UW System.

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The superintendent’s blunt language did not sit well with Regents President John Behling, who signaled last week that he was disappointed with the comments from Evers. Behling suggested that the elected superintendent of public instruction was politicizing the debate and disregarding the hard work of the regents.

The defensive response from the president of the Board of Regents tells us everything about why Behling and the majority of regents need to be replaced. If they think that standing up for Wisconsin’s two-year colleges and four-year universities is politicizing the debate, if they think there is something wrong with objecting to the cutting of majors and the slashing of budgets, then they are so dramatically out of touch that they need to go.

Evers is an educator with decades of experience serving the students and the communities of Wisconsin. He does not take outrageous stands, and he does not make irresponsible (or “disappointing”) statements. He has been elected three times by the voters of Wisconsin to serve as the state’s top advocate for education. He has been a member of the UW Board of Regents for a longer time than other regents and has a good deal more experience dealing with higher education issues.

The sense of urgency that Evers brings to the discussion of those issues extends from his experience. He knows what he is talking about. And when he needs more information, he listens to administrators, faculty members and students — not the corporate lobbyists and out-of-state campaign donors who influence so much of Wisconsin’s policymaking.

This is a time to be outspoken in support of higher education. Tony Evers recognizes what is at stake. He has spoken boldly and stepped up to defend the promise of the UW System. That does not sit well with the regents who go along and get along with the misguided approach that Walker and his legislative allies have adopted with regard to higher education. Evers is absolutely right. The regents who are not prepared to fight for Wisconsin’s colleges and universities should be replaced by a new governor.

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