What's Scott Walker Got Against the University of Wisconsin?

by | June 29, 2015 AT 3:20 PM

By Noah Bierman

First, Gov. Scott Walker defeated public-sector labor unions. Then, he declawed their private-sector counterparts. Now, just weeks ahead of his expected entry into the presidential race, the Wisconsin Republican is staring down another conservative target: college professors.

The trifecta could cement Walker's reputation among conservative Republican primary voters as a bold leader willing to battle entrenched interests of the left in the name of reform.

But faculty at the state's universities, backed by national higher-education groups, say he is risking the quality and prestige of one of the country's leading state universities to fuel his presidential ambitions.

The clash of values echoes many fights that have erupted since Walker took office after the 2010 election. Loud, polarizing debates have punctuated the Walker years. The attention they received has catapulted him into the front ranks of those seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

His campaign, expected to formally launch next month, is largely built around his image as a fighter for conservative causes who has won key battles.

In this capital city, the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus, long seen as a liberal bastion, sits less than a mile from the state Capitol building, and the lines between the conservative governor and his liberal opponents are sharply drawn.

Professors fume at what they regard as a multipronged attack. Walker's allies say he and the Republican-majority Legislature are carrying out a mandate for reform on behalf of beleaguered taxpayers.

The Legislature is set to vote within weeks on a budget that includes a $250 million cut to higher education over the next two years, roughly an 11 percent reduction in state support for the university system.

More attention has focused on a provision of the budget that removes tenure protection from state law, leaving it in the hands of a board of regents appointed largely by Walker. The proposal would also broaden the power of administrators to eliminate academic positions and departments in the name of efficiency.

The president of the board and the UW-Madison chancellor have pledged to maintain tenure and academic freedom. But faculty are skeptical they will have the same ironclad protections against retaliation for controversial research, particularly the type of scholarship that can leave winners and losers in the marketplace.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank told the faculty that the controversy means the school would have a "bull's-eye on our back" in competing with other institutions for recruits and defending against poaching by rivals. Blank pledged that she would not accept a tenure policy that falls short of peer universities' protections, and urged professors to band together in preserving the university's reputation.

"I know that there are a lot of angry and a lot of very worried and a lot of very upset people," she told faculty members during one of several campus forums. "My staff can tell you just how angry I've been at various times over the last five to six months.

"My role is not to be angry," she said. "My role is to figure out how we move forward."

Blank said she had been frustrated by headlines declaring the end of tenure. Wisconsin is unusual in enshrining tenure protections for university professors in state statute; at nearly all public universities, tenure is set by administrative policies.

The board of regents has approved language that will keep tenure protections in place even if they are removed from state law. But faculty also worry about another section of the budget bill _ inserted by the Legislature _ that relaxes the ability to lay off professors because of budget issues or changes "deemed necessary" to academic programs.

That sort of open-ended phrase could be used to undermine academic freedom, some faculty members say.

"As long as this section exists, what we have is not tenure," said David Vanness, a population health sciences professor.

Regina Millner, president of the regents who oversee all 26 of the state's colleges and universities, said repeatedly during an interview that she and her colleagues were conscious of the need to protect academic freedom for numerous reasons, including the imperative to compete for top faculty talent. Walker, she said, was trying to provide more financial flexibility to the system's leaders during tight budget times.

"Walker came into office as a reform candidate," said Millner, who was appointed to her seven-year term by him in 2012. "He's comfortable with reform, and he understands that there's going to be a certain amount of angst with any reform."

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, says faculty members are politicizing the issue by claiming that the tenure changes are more dramatic than they are.

But Walker, too, has dramatized the issue, saying earlier this year that the changes he was proposing for state colleges would be "the Act 10 of higher education," a reference to the bill passed early in his first term to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees.

The drive to pass Act 10 continues to define Walker's governorship to both supporters and detractors.

In the months after the law passed, protesters filled the Capitol building beyond capacity and unions led an unsuccessful campaign to recall the governor. These days, protesters still gather almost daily under the rotunda, but their ranks are down to a trickle. Recently, about 20 showed up at lunchtime, singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and unfurling a maroon banner with a fractured outline of the state map atop a broken heart.

In March, Walker also signed a "right to work" bill that curbed the power of private-sector unions.

Vos said he initially viewed academic tenure as an outdated notion but has been persuaded that professors need some protection, citing the example of conservatives who work on campuses dominated by "die-hard liberals." But he insisted that tenure should not be simply "permanent job protection," particularly for professors who are unproductive or work in outdated fields.

"Now, if Gov. Walker wants to talk about that on the campaign trail, I guess he can do that," Vos said. "But I don't think that's the reason for it."