Lawmakers on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee trimmed Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $300 million two-year funding cut to the University of Wisconsin System to $250 million, which if it stands would be tied for the largest cut in System history and would mark the fifth time in the last six budget cycles that the universities took a significant funding cut.

Of perhaps even more consequence, the committee approved significant changes to faculty tenure, removing it from state law, and to shared governance that would take away some decision-making power from faculty, students and staff and give more sway to campus chancellors and the UW System Board of Regents, who are appointed by the governor.

Sensing the gravity of the move, System President Ray Cross and Regents Vice President Regina Millner said the board would approve a measure to enshrine tenure in Regents policy at a meeting next week — as they’d promised when removing tenure from state law was first floated by Walker in his 2015-17 budget proposal in early February.

“We remain as committed to those principles now as we were five months ago,” Cross and Millner said in a statement.

But putting tenure in Regents policy carries less weight, especially symbolically, than having the ironclad protection of state law, said Noel Radomski, director of UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. He said the loss of tenure will have immediate impact.

“If I were other universities, I’d be poaching as many of our top faculty as possible,” he said, noting that “star” faculty typically have lucrative research grants that travel with them. “It’s going to be open season.”

The proposed changes by the Joint Finance Committee, which adopted them Friday night on a party-line 12-4 vote after Republicans introduced them earlier in the day, also officially put an end to Walker’s proposal, supported by top System officials, to spin the System off from state control to be operated as a public authority. It was the second major piece of Walker’s proposed changes to the universities announced in early February.

The lawmakers recommended restoring at least in part two key operating flexibilities that were included in Walker’s public authority model. Universities would be exempt from state oversight on purchasing and procurement after the Regents develop their own rules governing them, which is expected to save about $6 million yearly. Campuses also would be exempt from state rules on building projects provided the projects are funded entirely through gifts or grants, a relatively small change since just a handful of building projects each year are privately funded.

Budget committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the changes would “give the flexibilities that are going to be important for the universities to be able to manage their money better.”

Targeting tenure

In addition to removing tenure from state law, the budget committee called to make it easier for tenured faculty to be fired or laid off. One provision eliminates current law requiring that tenured faculty only be removed for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. Another provision gives Regents authority to lay off any employee, including tenured faculty, if budget circumstances call for it. Seniority protections would go away, although seniority would be one factor considered in who loses jobs.

Darling stated that Wisconsin is the only state that has job protections for tenured faculty written into statutes, which Radomski said was a point of pride for many faculty and a reason faculty find System campuses a desirable place despite comparatively low salaries. The GOP motion calls for the Board of Regents to determine whether to have tenure and what it would entail.

Changes in shared governance, the cherished policy that gives students, faculty and staff an official voice in campus decisions, would concentrate more of the decision-making power in the hands of chancellors and the Regents. Faculty, students and staff would still have a voice, but would be more limited to matters that directly affect each group and would strip them of their decision-making role in matters of campus policy and purse strings.

“We believe in empowering the Board of Regents and the chancellors throughout the state of Wisconsin to be able to manage the System,” said committee co-chairman John Nygren. “I think this is a tool to enable them to do that.”

Darling predicted the changes would signal a “new relationship” between the UW System and the Legislature. Cross said in a statement that he’s satisfied with the changes.

“I want to express my gratitude to these legislators as well as the others who have worked to reduce the cut and provide the system with needed flexibilities,” he said.

But faculty were concerned. Richard Grusin, a UW-Milwaukee English professor who this spring secured a promise from Cross to resign if the Legislature didn’t substantially reduce the funding cut and restore tenure and shared governance, renewed his call Friday. “I feel he’s simply lost any credibility with the faculty and I would think with the public, as well,” he said. Cross declined an interview request.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, who’s chairwoman of the Senate higher education committee, said the flexibility will allow the System to be “more responsive, more efficient and really look at redesigning” and be “more responsive in providing our workforce needs for today and tomorrow.”

Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said the UW also will be subjected to independent financial audits – a response to concerns about the hundreds of million dollars in fund balances that UW System and its campuses have carried.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, accused Republicans of harming higher education in Wisconsin.

“We need to fund the $300 million plus that we’ve taken out … because it (UW System) is an economic driver,” said Taylor, sporting a black and yellow scarf in honor of her alma mater, UW-Milwaukee.

Contact reporter Dan Simmons at dsimmons@madison.com or 608-252-6136. Contact reporter Dee J. Hall at dhall@madison.com or 608-252-6132.

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Reporter, Wisconsin State Journal