The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents went with a more traditional choice for System president in former UW-Extension chancellor Ray Cross, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t end up being an excellent hire.
Still, it would have been interesting to see the board go with the obvious outlier among the three who were publicly announced as finalists for the job: Robert L. King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
One look at the Wisconsin Legislature of today and the likely Legislature of tomorrow suggests an outlier might be exactly the kind of medicine that would do the System good — even if those in the System wouldn’t want to admit it.
King, an attorney, didn’t get a very positive reception among some faculty and some of higher education’s traditional Democratic allies.
Lacking the Ph.D. and the background in academic ladder-climbing that are typical for budding university bigwigs, King would have been “problematic” for some faculty, according to UW-Madison professor Barry Orton.
“As you probably understand, university faculty whose professional lives are organized around the teaching and research that form the foundation for the granting of degrees have a strong bias for university leaders with earned degrees,” he told me.
King’s stint on an American Legislative Exchange Council task force some 25 years ago, while a Republican New York state lawmaker, also set off alarm bells.
For the uninitiated, ALEC is a group that brings politicians and corporations together to craft conservative and corporate-friendly model bills and has become something of the root of all evil for certain people on the political left.
Never mind that King worked well with Democratic lawmakers in Kentucky or that he gained praise for his collaboration with a coalition of interests on a 2013 report on college affordability and graduation rates for HCM Strategists, a Washington, D.C., think tank and advocacy group.
Kristin Conklin, a founding partner with HCM, called King “thoughtful and careful” and “nonpartisan.”
But practically speaking, King’s lack of acceptably high levels of book-learning, along with the bit of Republican blood running through his veins, might not have been such bad things.
The feelings state Republicans have about the over-educated “elitists” who run the System can be a tad self-conscious and defensive at times.
Or as Senate President Mike Ellis put it in one outburst during the flap over the System’s financial reserves last year: “They all think they’re Ph.D.s and we ought to be working at Jiffy Lube. ... The Legislature’s a heck of a lot smarter than they’re giving us credit for.”
Who better to squeeze money and other concessions out of Wisconsin Republicans than a former Republican lawmaker who doesn’t have to be begrudgingly addressed as “Doctor” — especially given that Republican gerrymandering means the Legislature could remain Republican for a long time to come?
Heck, with a crowd like the one in control at the Capitol these days, having ALEC on your resume may well be a feather in a prospective president’s mortarboard.