Gov. Tony Evers announced three appointments to the UW System Board of Regents Friday, solidifying a majority of his appointees on the important body as it elects a new board president next month and looks toward a second attempt at finding a new president to lead Wisconsin’s public universities.
These appointments by Evers move control of the board from Scott Walker-era hostility against the UW System to the staunchly pro-public education stance embraced by Evers.
Under a majority of Republican appointees, the 18-member board stood by as the Legislature made massive budget cuts and frequently made decisions that were largely opposed by faculty and staff at the 13 universities in the system. Republican-appointed leadership also gave itself more power in choosing campus leadership and fought GOP culture war battles over free speech issues on campus while chipping away at the principal of shared governance between lawmakers, regents, administrators, faculty and students.
Evers, himself a former member of the Board of Regents during his time as state superintendent, appointed Dr. Ashok Rai and Brianna Tucker to the board. Rai is CEO and president of Green Bay-based Prevea Health and a graduate of UW-Milwaukee. Tucker, a freshman at UW-Eau Claire is set to be one of two student regents on the board. Evers also reappointed venture capital fund founder John Miller to a full term on the board. Miller was appointed in February after the death of Regent José Delgado.
Miller has a long history as a Democratic donor and served as a congressional staffer in Washington D.C. for Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District — the majority Democratic district that covers Milwaukee. Tucker studies political science and Spanish, is a member of student government and serves as a senator for the College of Letters and Sciences.
Rai, who has helmed Prevea since 2009, has a long history of donating to Republicans, according to campaign finance records. He gave thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Walker and his Lt. Gov Rebecca Kleefisch, who is expected to run for governor in the 2022 election.
Support for the UW System is not an entirely partisan issue — interim System president and former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson is a zealous supporter of public higher education — but Evers’ office did not respond to a question over Rai’s political donations.
Evers made these appointments one day before the terms of the previous holders were set to expire, continuing a trend in his administration in which regent appointments are made late or at the last minute. In 2019 the appointments were also made on April 30 and in 2020, Evers didn’t appoint new members to the board until June — which allowed Walker-appointees to retain their seats and continue voting on issues, drawing Democratic criticism and frustration.
Next week, the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges will hold a confirmation hearing for all of the regent appointments Evers has made since assuming office in 2019.
“Our universities and technical colleges systems have a proud and proven history of not only preparing students to enter the workforce but of generating billions of dollars of economic activity across our state,” Evers said in a statement “As we work to ensure our state recovers and bounces back better than before this pandemic hit, we need to be supporting and investing in our UW campuses and students and our state’s future. So I am thrilled to be appointing these folks to the Board of Regents today to ensure we can continue bouncing back, supporting our kids and our educators, and making sure the UW System remains the gem of our state.”
Now, with Thompson at temporarily the helm and the future leadership of whoever is permanently chosen, the Board of Regents and System leadership have a chance to align with Evers’ vision for a more robust university system. With nine Evers appointees, seven Walker appointees plus the state superintendent and president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, the board and system leadership can push back against the still-hostile winds coming from Republican lawmakers who control the legislative committees that guide the system’s budget and policies.
Nick Fleisher, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), says it’s a tough role but the Board of Regents should stand as a buffer between the university system and its political critics.
“I think you want people who are going to work in the best interests of the system as a public university system and act as a political buffer between the system and the Legislature,” Fleisher, a linguistics professor at UW-Milwaukee, says. “That’s a tough balance to strike but that’s the board’s role. Over the past five or six years we’ve seen a board that’s interested in carrying out the wishes and plans of the Legislature, rather than the university system when those interests are in contrast.”
These appointments and the shift in control come at a crucial time for the UW System as it looks to rebuild from the financial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the moment, Evers, Thompson and campus leadership are attempting to sell Evers’ budget proposal for the state’s public universities to the Legislature.
Meanwhile, the election of a new board president is set to occur in June. Historically, the board president serves a two-year term and is then replaced by the vice president in a unanimous vote. If the board were to follow precedent, this would elevate Walker-appointee Michael Grebe to the role. Grebe was in charge of last year’s search for a new UW System president — which ended in failure after Grebe decided to eschew the involvement of students and faculty in the search committee.
Other regents have already signaled that the election will be contested which is crucial because whoever is elected as board president will get to choose who sits on the next presidential search committee.
“Regent Grebe was head of the search committee for the last system president search which was a complete failure and predictably so,” Fleisher says. “Everyone told him not to do what he did, he did it anyway and the search failed. I think he should not have the opportunity to run a search gain.”
Establishing control of the board fulfills Evers’ campaign promise of remaking all levels of public education, according to Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point).
Shankland, who represents the campus of UW-Stevens Point and sits on the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, says she’s “thrilled” at this opportunity because it represents a chance to correct the mistakes of recent years.
“The future of the UW System is really at stake here,” Shankland says. “There are a lot of opportunities to advance equity and access to higher education. I think the next president and the new regents have an opportunity without the continued threats we’ve seen over the last decade, the decline in state support, unfunded tuition freezes, continued chipping away of shared governance. The vociferous support, investing in public education, enhancing access to the system — that is a huge opportunity.”
Shankland says this new makeup should reorient the board’s priorities toward the needs of faculty and students. Matthew Mitnick, former chair of the Associated Students of Madison,, says he also hopes this new era can result in progress and empowerment for students.
“Too many appointees in the past have served on the Board of Regents to check a box on their resume or feel a sense of power and entitlement over students,” Mitnick says. “If Evers appoints progressive voices who will stand up to the misconduct of the UW-Madison administration, then I am confident that we will finally see progress and true change for students.”
The new regent’s positions are subject to Senate confirmation but go into effect Saturday. Miller and Rai’s terms run through May 2028 while Tucker’s term ends May 2023.