Scott Walker’s latest show­down

Wis­con­sin’s gover­nor con­fronts univer­sity fac­ulty with an eye on his con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials for 2016.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Noah Bier­man noah.bier­man@latimes.com Twit­ter: @ noah­bier­man

MADI­SON, Wis. — 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 f ights 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 f lag­ship 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 $ 250mil­lion cut to higher ed­u­ca­tion over the next two years, roughly an 11% 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’seye 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 f ig­ure 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 f inan­cial f lex­i­bil­ity 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 f illed 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 “diehard 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.”

Many pro­fes­sors say they be­lieve that Walker, who dropped out of Mar­quette Univer­sity and would be the f irst pres­i­dent since Harry Tru­man with­out a col­lege de­gree if he were to win, sees no po­lit­i­cal up­side to pla­cat­ing them.

“We’re seen as this ma­jor lib­eral in­sti­tu­tion,” said Don­ald Downs, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who teaches at UWMadi­son. Downs, a na­tional leader in free- speech is­sues who was ac­tive in abol­ish­ing fac­ulty speech codes in the 1990s, said the at­tack on higher ed­u­ca­tion was part of Walker’s broader vi­sion to dis­man­tle Wis­con­sin’s “blue- state model.”

That strat­egy, he pointed out, works well with Walker’s bid to win the Iowa cau­cuses by con­sol­i­dat­ing the sup­port of con­ser­va­tives just a few months af­ter he signs the bud­get.

“We’ve been sit­ting up here as a tar­get for a long time,” Downs said, sit­ting out­side the stu­dent union. “None of this sur­prises me at all.”

Mike De Sisti Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel

ED­U­CA­TORS and sup­port­ers protest tough bud­get pro­vi­sions out­side a Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Board of Re­gents meet­ing this month in Mil­wau­kee.

Morry Gash As­so­ci­ated Press

GOV. SCOTT WALKER’S pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, which he’s ex­pected to kick off next month, is re­ly­ing largely on his rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing tough on unions.

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