Board of Regents (copy) (copy)

UW-Stout students protest a Board of Regents' vote on a freedom of expression policy in this Oct. 6 photo.


A controversial speech policy and a sweeping restructuring plan adopted in 2017 by the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents will affect the state’s institutions of higher education for years to come.

They were among a series of changes to operations at system campuses that serve to centralize power which were swiftly adopted without debate by UW Regents, all but one of whom were selected by Gov. Scott Walker. Walker’s budget also dictated changes at UW campuses, including performance-based funding across the state and a new conservative think tank at UW-Madison.

The speech policy for UW campuses adopted by UW Regents in October — that mirrors Republican legislation passed in the state Assembly but not taken up in the Senate — requires an investigation if two or more people complain that a student has disrupted the free expression rights of someone on campus. If found to have done so through a campus hearing process, the student must be suspended for at least one semester; found to have disrupted speech twice, the student will be expelled.

The policy purports to protect speech from censoring. “Exploration, deliberation, and debate may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community (or those outside the community) to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” it reads in part.

Students from UW campuses around the state urged regents to protect their free expression rights. Some students fear the policy will prevent them from countering racist, misogynist and xenophobic “hate speech.” Several faculty members at UW-Madison asked Chancellor Rebecca Blank to protect students’ freedom of expression with clear guidelines on how the policy will be implemented in order to “avoid an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that hampers both academic and community-building missions.”

UW System President Ray Cross in October unveiled his plan to merge the system’s 13 two-year UW Colleges campuses with four-year institutions to streamline operations in the face of falling enrollments and end UW Extension as a separate entity.

Created with little consultation with or notification of campus administrators, faculty or students — or the county officials who own and maintain the UW Colleges facilities — the reorganization proposal was approved by regents on Nov. 9, a month after its unveiling.

While the two-year campuses are slated to remain open, details about what classes will be offered where are still being worked out.

UW-Madison at year’s end was working out how to incorporate UW Cooperative Extension and the administration of UW Conference Centers into its operation, as the restructuring requires. Seven of the systems 13 four-year schools will incorporate UW Colleges campuses into their operations. Which of the four-year institutions will take UW Colleges Online has not yet been announced.

Although the restructuring is anticipated to produce costs savings, and some layoffs, Cross has released no details. Officials said, in fact, that no financial analysis of the restructuring was done before it was adopted.

July 1 is the date that the reorganization is to take effect.

UW Regents in October changed the rules for who sits on committees that select the candidates for chancellor posts to give regents greater sway in a move designed to get more campus leaders from outside higher education.

In December, regents adopted performance metrics to guide the distribution of $26.25 million in new funding to campuses next year. Metrics on which campuses will be evaluated include increased enrollment of Wisconsin high school graduates, awarding of more degrees in STEM and health-related fields and decreasing average student loan debt on graduation.

Regents also approved a policy — as required by Walker’s budget — to monitor faculty and instructional staff teaching workloads, publish results for individuals and reward those who carry a larger than typical teaching load.

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Although faculty at UW-Madison have stressed that research and outreach also are vital aspects of their profession and the campus’ mission that must be considered in any evaluation of workload, the policy adopted by regents will track and reward only instructional time.

The policy is slated for review and possible revision in five years.

UW-Madison saw the establishment of two conservative think-tanks on campus in 2017.

The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership was funded with $2.5 million in state money. Republican legislative leaders characterized the center, named for the popular former governor, as a necessary bulwark against the liberal hegemony at the state’s flagship campus.

Additional private funding is anticipated, like the $50,000 from the Milwaukee-based conservative Bradley Foundation for the center’s widely publicized conference on leadership in November.

The Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy, or CROWE, is being privately funded, including by Bradley.

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