Bascom Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Ron Cogswell | used by permission of the photographer)
Two Republican candidates for governor said that if elected they would recall and replace all of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ unconfirmed appointees to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported Monday.
Both former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson said they’d install their own regents. The plan would allow the potential Republican governor to replace at least half of the body that sets policy for the system’s campuses, giving power of the board back to the party that has regularly been hostile to higher education in the state.
The 18-member board is set up so that regents serve staggered seven-year terms, but the state Senate has consistently refused to confirm Evers’ appointees, meaning that if a Republican governor is elected, they can install their own regents. The Senate has not confirmed nine of Evers’ 11 regent appointees.
In statements to the Journal-Sentinel, Kleefisch and Nicholson said they’d want to take control of the board to keep liberal ideologies out of the system. Both mentioned critical race theory, a graduate school-level educational framework that states institutions are shaped by racism, as a reason overhauling the board is necessary.
“As governor, I would replace unconfirmed appointees to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents with nominees who are serious about reducing the amount of time it takes to get a degree, reducing the cost of degrees, and who are committed to removing intellectual poison like Critical Race Theory from all UW curricula,” Nicholson said.
Kleefisch pointed to the recent hiring of Jennifer Mnookin, dean of the UCLA law school, as chancellor of UW-Madison. Immediately after Mnookin’s hiring, Republicans criticized her for previous statements about critical race theory and her association with the state of California.
“As proven by its choice to hire Dr. Mnookin — with her woke CRT, vaccine-mandating history in California — the UW Board of Regents needs a major overhaul,” Kleefisch said. “As a UW alum, I believe our universities need to refocus their mission on workforce needs, not pushing liberal ideology. When I’m governor, I will withdraw every unconfirmed Evers appointment and replace them with nominees who are staunch advocates for diversity of thought on campus.”
Karen Walsh, the regent who led the search that resulted in Mnookin’s hiring, has said that the board doesn’t consider political ideology when hiring, only looking for leadership skills. Recently, the board hired former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson as interim UW System president and Jay Rothman, a Milwaukee attorney who has donated to Republican campaigns, started as System president this month.
Walsh, one of the two Evers appointees who has been confirmed by the Senate, was elected as the board’s chair on Friday.
The board includes 11 Evers appointees, five appointees of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Technical College System board president.
Nicholas Fleisher, a professor at UW-Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that the removal of Evers appointees would severely threaten the System.
“Made possible by the state senate’s continued active participation in nullifying the 2018 governor’s election through abuse of the confirmation process,” he tweeted. “This will be a huge scandal threatening everything from reputation to accreditation if it happens.”
Since Evers’ election in 2018, Wisconsin Republicans have repeatedly sought to stonewall his appointees or find loopholes to keep Walker appointees in office on several of the state’s powerful boards and commissions.
That strategy of not confirming appointments will allow Republicans a chance to recall at least nine members of the Board of Regents if they capture the governor’s office, but it has also prevented Evers from gaining a majority in other important parts of state government.
The Natural Resources Board, which guides policy for the Department of Natural Resources, has remained in Republican control because Fred Prehn, a Wausau dentist appointed by Walker, has refused to leave his seat even though his term expired on May 1, 2021 and his replacement has been named by Evers.
Prehn has insisted his decision not to leave has nothing to do with politics, yet his emails have shown him deciding to stay to influence board decisions on controversial topics such as wolf hunting and water regulation, as well as communicating with the Republicans in control of the Senate and Walker himself.
Prehn argues that he’s allowed to stay on the board until the Senate confirms his replacement. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) has said the body, which ended its term earlier this spring, won’t consider any more Evers appointees. A lawsuit seeking to boot Prehn from the board is pending before the state Supreme Court.
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