A meeting between the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents and state legislators last week was designed mainly to find common ground in the wake of recent disputes over cash reserves. But discussions during the meeting about rethinking shared governance had some faculty feeling like they were left holding the bag for administrators' actions – and that their decision-making authority within the system was under threat.
The conference, “Finding Common Ground: Regent Governance, Funding, and Partnerships for Wisconsin’s Public University System,” was initiated by the board, following a state audit this spring that showed the university system had cash reserves of $648 million, about a quarter of its annual appropriation. The funds were distributed among many accounts across the system and the funds had gone virtually unmentioned to state officials. While many state higher education systems use reserves,  the issue highlighted legislative-board relations. System President Kevin Reilly, who has been in office since 2004, recently announced that he will be stepping down in January.
Michael Falbo, the board's president, told legislators they needed to “reboot” the longstanding partnership between Wisconsin and its public universities.“We need to remember that we are all in this together, and we need to look at ways to strengthen that partnership.”
During a panel discussion on board governance, however, legislators took the opportunity to start a discussion about the role of the faculty in decision making.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, said governance changes within the system were a matter of “when, not if,” and that university chancellors should be empowered to “truly be the chief executive officers.”
Vos added: "Does the role of allowing faculty to make a huge number of decisions help the system or hurt the system?"
Some faculty advocates present, including Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the Madison campus, where the meeting took place, called those statements troubling.
“Vos, in his remarks, very explicitly stated that we need to look into this issue of perceived inefficiency,” stemming from faculty involvement in decision making, she said. “I attended this meeting very interested to hear the conversation, but I did not expect to hear any of that.”
Taking faculty out of the decision-making process to save time and money is misguided, she said, citing a 2012 American Enterprise Institute study  that will be included in a forthcoming volume from Harvard Education Press on stretching the higher education dollar. The study, by Robert E. Martin, Centre College emeritus professor of economics, shows that college costs continued to grow even as faculty say in institutional priorities declined, nationwide, from 1987 to 2008.
It’s also against tradition, said Goldrick-Rab, noting that Wisconsin professors have long enjoyed a strong governance "partnership" with administrators and students, thanks to state statute,  under which faculty are guaranteed active participation in shaping institutional policy and responsibility for academic and personnel matters.
"The reason I've stayed at Wisconsin is shared governance," Goldrick-Rab said. "It's really important to faculty worklife and quality of education."
But the principle has eroded over time,  Goldrick-Rab said. And the current political environment in Wisconsin, in which Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, has proposed linking funding for higher education to "performance," doesn't bode well for its future.
In public remarks last year, Walker said: "In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?"
William Tracy, professor of agronomy at Madison and president of Madison's Public Representation Organization of the Faculty Senate, said he was concerned about Vos's comments, and blamed them in part on what he called a "misunderstanding" of the faculty role in governance.
"We've been effective in many, many ways," he said, including increasing graduation rates and decreased time-to-degree for graduate students in recent years. "It's hard to see that we're being inefficient or inflexible or not 'nimble,' or stodgy, if you will."
Like Goldrick-Rab, Tracy said that while including faculty in governance can slow down the decision-making process, it often leads to better decisions.
Randy Olson, professor of astronomy and chair of the Stevens Point campus Faculty Senate, said in an e-mail that Madison faculty members "are not the only ones that are upset."
"Most of my colleagues believe that one of the real strengths of the University of Wisconsin System is its shared governance where we have a collaborative approach with faculty and administrators in providing our students the best education possible," he said, adding that the legislature -- "in its earlier days" -- agreed.
He compared Vos's wish to make chancellors more like CEOs to making governors more like CEOs, diminishing the role of the legislature in governance.
Julie Schmid, chief of the staff for the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin, including its higher education component, said in an e-mail that the state law enshrining faculty governance in the university system has "been in both University of Wisconsin System administration's and the Republican lawmakers' sights for a while now."
Proposed changes need to be seen as "part and parcel" of Walker's 2011 overturning of collective bargaining for public employees, including faculty and staff, said Schmid, who will soon be the head administrator of the American Association of University Professors. "This is all about the further corporatization of public higher ed in this state and the further privatization of a common good [...] and it puts the [university] outside of the norm for U.S. higher ed."
Tracy said he believed that Wisconsin's system of shared governance wouldn't let faculty down, and that he was looking forward to a dialogue with legislators and administrators going forward.
Following Thursday's meeting, Falbo said: “We will organize our administration in a way that strengthens the institutions, and enhances their service to students, families, businesses, and communities." In doing so, he added, "we will focus on effective resource management, high-quality education, and competitive compensation for the faculty and staff who deliver the goods.”
Vos did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Reilly could not immediately be reached for comment.
State Senator Sheila Harsdorf, chair of the body's Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, last week agreed with Vos that governance practices needed to be reexamined and that "the system needs to be driven by the campuses with the campuses driving what services the system provides." In an interview, she said that she was more interested in rethinking the higher education funding model than the role of the faculty in governance, but that better systems of "accountability and measurement" are needed.
Lots of communication between on and off-campus constituencies, including "those who are creating the jobs and providing job opportunities for graduates," is needed to develop those systems, Harsdorf said.
Some of the board's meeting pertained to links between universities and businesses. Keynote speaker Charles Reed, chancellor emeritus of the California State University System, said, "[We] want to understand what employers need from our graduates and what legislators expect from our institutions so we can prepare our students to be successful in their workplace." Goldrick-Rab and others said they believed it was an unofficial endorsement of a more outcomes-based curriculum that focuses on job preparation at the expense of the liberal arts.
State Rep. Janet Bewley, a Democratic member of the Assembly’s Education Committee, challenged some of her fellow legislators' opinions last week, saying to those gathered: "What I want to prevent is a whole new set of cooks going into your kitchen, people who are academics trying to run your campuses."
In an interview, Bewley said Walker's vision for higher education enjoys more than marginal support in the legislature, and that shared governance -- along with support for the liberal arts -- is potentially vulnerable. She didn't know of any specific threats, she said, but "I think right now all of us are going to be wise enough to carefully watch what happens in the months to come."
Some faculty advocates praised Richard Wells, chancellor of the Oshkosh campus, for telling those gathered last week that campuses are communities, not corporations. In an e-mail, Wells said shared governance "is and will be increasingly under threat in Wisconsin and throughout the nation in large part because the higher education financial model is broken resulting in, among other things, the affordability and student debt crises. "
Faculty, staff, students and administrators must defend the principle through efficient and effective service of the system's mission and values, he said. "I am confident we will be successful together in the long run because we have a long Wisconsin legacy of addressing very difficult challenges," Wells said. "However, the short run ride is going to be tough. Stay tuned."