Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television will become part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison this summer, members of the UW System Board of Regents decided Tuesday.
The action by the Board of Regents Executive Committee amends UW System President Ray Cross’ reorganization plan that put the broadcasting systems under control of his office, UW System Administration. Cross was hired by, and reports to, the politically appointed members of the Board of Regents, who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
State Sen. Mark Miller, D-Madison, praised the change in plans.
“The Executive Committee made the right decision. Independence from political pressure is necessary for WPT and WPR to continue its mission,” Miller said Wednesday.
Miller had expressed concerns that Cross’ office taking control of the state's public broadcasting operations would jeopardize independence of those institutions, each of which includes news operations.
“I am deeply concerned that housing WPR and WPT in the Office of the President will inherently create a chilling effect of the free exchanges of ideas that we have come to expect in public broadcasting in Wisconsin,” Miller wrote to Cross in a letter sent days before the Board of Regents Nov. 9 approval of Cross’ sweeping reorganization plan for the state’s university system.
Public broadcasting’s tradition must continue “unabated, without fear of unwelcome reaction from political policy-makers at the top end of State Street,” Miller wrote. “The last thing the people of Wisconsin need is a state legislator or two influencing content and programming decisions for WPT and WPR.”
A WPR Feb. 1 news article, based on Cross’ emails that had been obtained under an open records request, that indicated Cross had deliberately skirted shared governance groups of faculty, staff and students in devising the reorganization plan.
In an email to UW Regent Gerald Whitburn in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 11 announcement of the reorganization Cross wrote: "Getting hammered by the 'shared governance' leaders because they weren't involved in the process; however, had they been involved we wouldn't be doing anything!!"
The WPR story prompted renewed criticism of Cross’ handling of the reorganization, including from the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Its leadership criticized Cross in an open letter for sidestepping shared governance groups and his “shocking” allegiance to the agenda of Republican legislators.
In a press release Tuesday announcing the change in plans for the broadcasting units, Cross said the organizational structure at UW-Madison will help increase the programming WPR and WPT provide for K-12 schools and foster “an even closer” relationship with faculty at UW-Madison.
“WPR and WPT will remain under the purview of the Regents and UW System, but it is critical to note they have always operated independently, and they will continue to have their autonomy going forward,” Cross said.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank welcomed returning the organizational home of WPR and WPT back to UW-Madison. “Public broadcasting was founded on the UW-Madison campus and was an important way in which we reached out to Wisconsin communities. We look forward to welcoming them back home and furthering their work,” Blank said in the news release.
WPR and WPT are currently part of UW Colleges and Extension, which will be eliminated under Cross’ reorganization. UW Colleges’ 12-two year campuses will become branches of four-year institutions. UW Extension’s Cooperative Extension Division and the UW-Extension Conference Centers are to be joined with UW-Madison.
The reorganization is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.
In addition to amending the reorganization plan for WPR and WPT, regents also decided Tuesday to move UW’s Department of Labor Education — home of the School for Workers — and part of Extension’s Division of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning to UW-Madison as well.
The Department of Labor Education includes tenured and tenure-track faculty, notes the resolution adopted by regents, and the University of Wisconsin System Administration is not an educational institution with tenure procedures or protocols.
Regents previously amended the reorganization plan, which had put UW College’s online associate degree under UW System Administration, to authorize all system campuses to offer the degree. They took action after the Higher Learning Commission, the university’s accrediting body, notified UW that the administrative office was not authorized to confer degrees.
Regents heard an update on the reorganization at their Feb. 8 public meeting in Madison, but a summary includes no mention of public broadcasting or the Department of Labor Education.
Changes for those entities were approved Tuesday by the Executive Committee, which met by phone. The Executive Committee is empowered act on behalf of the entire board.
The Board of Regents also cancelled its scheduled March meeting, after determining “that necessary business could be addressed at the April meeting, or by the Executive Committee, as needed,” said UW spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis.