John Behling

John Behling was elected president of the UW Board of Regents in June.


The new head of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents wants UW institutions to recruit leaders from the private sector, and said Friday that the System is launching a new effort to “streamline” its process for hiring chancellors and other top officials.

Regent President John Behling also credited controversial changes that weakened faculty tenure protections with leading to increased UW funding in the latest state budget. And he directed the System’s president to review policies at UW campuses to ensure they don’t violate students’ First Amendment rights.

“The Legislature wants us to be bold and forward-leaning,” Behling told the Regents during a speech opening his first meeting as the board’s leader.

The remarks indicate the Regents under Behling will continue to pursue changes that critics — particularly UW faculty members — allege are closely tied to the goals of Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature’s Republican leaders.

“Still feeling pretty solid about that #noconfidence vote,” UW-Milwaukee linguistics professor Nick Fleisher wrote on Twitter, referring to votes of no confidence in UW leadership by professors at several System campuses. “This is an appalling opening salvo from Behling.”

Regent Vice President Drew Petersen will lead a work group to study potential policy changes that address what Behling criticized as an extended recruitment process for chancellors and other university leaders, with the goal of approving new hiring rules by the end of this year.

Although the UW System does not have rules requiring that chancellors come from academic backgrounds, the hiring process often results in leaders from that field, Behling said.

“I want to expand recruitment to include leaders from outside academia,” said Behling, an Eau Claire attorney who was elected president at the board’s June meeting. “Across the country, hiring of private-sector individuals to lead universities is the latest trend. The University of Wisconsin (must) make sure our hiring process allows for a pool of candidates that is both diverse and dynamic.”

The comments echo a provision of the state budget introduced by Republican members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which would prohibit the UW System from adopting policies requiring that prospective campus leaders hold terminal degrees such as doctorates.

PROFS, a lobbying group of UW-Madison faculty members, has asked the Legislature to remove that section of the budget.

Donald Moynihan, a UW-Madison professor and director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, questioned the idea that someone from the private sector would do better at the complex job of running a university than a person from academia.

“You wouldn’t hire a history professor to run a real-estate firm,” Moynihan said. “Pulling in people who are completely unfamiliar with this environment (is) just a bad management decision.”

Change in tenure rules credited for budget boost

The board’s move last year to change faculty tenure rules, which gave chancellors greater authority to lay off professors, helped lead to a 2017-19 state budget that increases funding for the UW System after years of cuts, according to Behling. He led the process to rewrite the tenure rules, which faced strong opposition from faculty.

“Because we addressed tenure ... we have seen the best budget we have seen in 10 years,” Behling said.

Increases to UW employee pay in the budget are further “proof that adopting the tenure modifications were absolutely the right move,” he added.

Moynihan noted the increased state funding in the latest budget returns only a fraction of the money that has been cut from the System over recent years.

He warned that many faculty at UW-Madison have warily accepted changes to their tenure protections because they trust Chancellor Rebecca Blank. They might not be as trusting of someone from a private-sector background who isn’t steeped in traditional academic values, Moynihan said, which also risks making UW institutions less competitive for top faculty.

“It may be accurate in a very narrow sense to suggest that weakening tenure helped pave the way for more resources,” Moynihan said. “But it doesn’t make us a stronger institution in the long run.”

Board doesn’t mention speech-on-campus bill

Behling declined an interview request Friday. A System spokeswoman instead provided a statement from Behling in which he said his remarks were “intended to reaffirm our commitment to freedom of expression on our campuses, and signal to legislators we hear their concerns and take them seriously.”

“We are also responding to the ever-changing landscape of higher education and the board must be forward-looking,” Behling said.

The Regents approved a resolution just after Behling’s statement reaffirming their commitment to free expression, and launching a review of campus speech policies.

While the resolution was similar in its goals to a controversial bill in the state Senate that aims to preserve open dialogue on campuses by toughening penalties for students who engage in disruptive protests, the Regents did not mention the legislation in their discussion. UW System leaders have not taken a formal stance on the bill, although many faculty and students have criticized it.

The Regents passed their statement unanimously. Behling said he plans to hear recommendations for potential UW policy changes at the board’s meeting in October.


Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.