Long-time University of Wisconsin System Regent Charles Pruitt’s call to colleagues to set aside political allegiances for the good of the university last week rang with passion, but a look at state campaign finance records shows many of the group’s members are reliable partisan supporters.
“I continue to cling to the hope and belief that this university is best served by regents who when they pass through the doors of Van Hise Hall … strive not to be Republican regents or Democratic regents, but simply regents of one of the finest public university systems in the country,” Pruitt said Thursday in a farewell speech.
Pruitt had been one of a few remaining board members appointed before Gov. Scott Walker took office, and he took the opportunity of the expiration of his term to sound a ringing defense of the “Wisconsin Idea” that was targeted by the Walker administration.
“The ‘Wisconsin Idea’ was not a drafting error,” said Pruitt of the university’s famously aspirational mission statement.
Walker had claimed that it was a drafting error that caused the deletion in his 2015-2017 budget bill of language stating that the UW’s mission is “to educate people and improve the human condition,” and “serve and stimulate society,” and declaring “the search for the truth” basic to its every purpose. Those goals were to be replaced by a commitment to workforce development in the Walker version.
Documents released last month after a lawsuit showed Walker budget writers did intend to fundamentally change the mission of the university, at his direction. One document said Walker requested a “simplified and clearer mission and purpose statements.”
“The Wisconsin Idea does not need to be modernized, modified, changed or improved. It is fine just the way it is.” Pruitt said June 9 at a Board of Regents’ meeting at UW-Milwaukee.
That session of the regents, where they approved a $6.2 billion budget, also saw the official seating of Walker’s three latest appointments to the board: Brookfield lawyer Tracey Klein, Janesville lawyer Bryan Steil and non-traditional student Lisa Erickson of Osceola.
Klein, who donated $9,639 to Walker between 2010 and 2014, became one of seven of his 14 appointees to the Board of Regents who have given thousands of dollars to his campaign, according to the campaign finance database maintained by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Sixteen members of the 18-member Board of Regents — two of them students — are appointed by the governor. Two serve ex-officio in their roles on the Wisconsin Technical College System Board and State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Top donor among Walker appointees is Jose Delgado, the retired founder of American Transmission Company (ATC), who contributed $14,000 to the governor’s campaign fund since 2009, $10,000 of it before he was named to the Board of Regents in 2014.
Gerald Whitburn, a retired insurance executive who also held two state cabinet positions under Gov. Tommy Thompson, gave Walker $10,400; $2,750 for his successful run for governor in 2009 and 2010 and an additional $7,650 after being named to the Board of Regents the following year.
Corporate attorney Michael M. Grebe of Waukesha , a 2015 appointee to the board, donated $1,000 to Walker in 2005 during an aborted bid for the Republican nomination for governor, and $3,000 in 2012, when Walker faced a recall election.
Margaret Farrow, a former lieutenant governor under Scott McCallum, gave $2,575 to Walker in 14 contributions between 1993, when he ran successfully for the state Assembly, and 2014, when he was reelected governor.
Eau Claire attorney John Behling, vice president of the Board of Regents who was appointed in 2012, donated $2,500 to Walker in 2009 and 2010.
Tim Higgins of Appleton, founder of a health care consulting firm, gave Walker $500 in 2010, and another $1,886 after he was named a regent in 2011.
S. Mark Tyler, who serves ex-officio by dint of his position on the WTCS board — to which Walker re-appointed him in 2013 — gave the governor $2,600 in 2014 and 2015.
Tyler in December 2015 also donated $700 to state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, the chair of the Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges and member of the Joint Finance Committee that swiftly passed an omnibus bill that spring that cut $250 million from UW System funding and set tenure policies up for revision.
New regent Klein in December 2015 donated $100 to Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who a year earlier grabbed headlines with dismissive remarks about university research on “ancient mating habits of whatever.”
Others that Walker appointed have made smaller donations to him: Board president Regina Millner gave Walker $600 in 2014.
But it’s not just Walker’s appointees who gave money to the politician who appointed them.
Regent Mark Bradley, a Wausau attorney and former UW System budget analyst appointed by former Gov. Jim Doyle in 2003, gave Doyle $26,052 between 1993 and 2009.
Bradley also supported Walker opponents, giving $9,348.87 to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in 2009 and 2010 when he ran against Walker for the governor’s mansion vacated by Doyle’s retirement, and $9,000 to Madison School Board member Mary Burke in her 2013-2014 bid to unseat Walker.
Bradley’s term on the Board of Regents expires in May, 2017. So does that of Edmund Manydeeds, the other remaining regent appointed by Doyle, to whom he donated $2,000 between 2002 and 2009.
For his part, Pruitt donated $2,400 to Doyle between 1991, when he was running for reelection as state Attorney General, and 2009, when Doyle announced he would not seek a third term as governor. Pruitt also financially supported Walker opponents, giving $2,800 to Barrett in 2009-2010 and $1,500 to Burke in 2013-2014.
Politics are unavoidable on the governing boards of public universities, where the state’s governor typically appoints a majority of the members, says Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.
“What you don’t want is a situation where the governor appoints people just to be a rubber stamp for what the governor wants,” said Ehrenberg, who is also a member of the board of trustees of the State University of New York.
UW regents have been under intense pressure from Walker and the Republican- controlled legislature to cut costs, demonstrate greater accountability and focus curriculum to graduate job-ready students.
The board did not fight removal of the tenure from state law in Walker’s 2015-2016 budget; its administrative leadership scrapped a planned public airing of difficulties caused by Walker’s state funding cuts in April; and this month members unanimously approved a 2016-2017 budget which board leadership and administrators released to the public only when they were ready to vote on it in what some open government advocates are calling a violation of open records law.
Despite the risk of intruding politics, governor appointment is the best process to select trustees to govern public universities, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the right-leaning American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group which advocates for a more activist role by trustees.
Governor appointments “leave the behavior of the board as a clear reflection on an identifiable appointing authority,” Poliakoff said. “We stress that the trustees are primarily answerable to the citizens of the state. Their responsibility as fiduciaries is very clearly to focus on the well-being of the whole, and very clearly transcends political pressure.”
Poliakoff said he admonishes university trustees that “as handsome as your all are, you are not cheerleaders.” Sometimes trustees feel so honored by their posts that they delegate to administrators responsibility they should embrace as fiduciaries, he explained.
Pruitt, in his emotional farewell last week, recalled Vos’ admonishment to regents in 2013 — as legislators attacked them over what they called excessive fund balances — that they need to choose between being cheerleaders for UW or advocates for taxpayers.
“That is a false choice,” Pruitt said.
“Should regents be advocates for the taxpayers? Of course you should. The taxpayers and all stakeholders deserve to expect that every dollar spent here is spent wisely well,” he said.
“But to suggest that you can do that only at the expense of being a cheerleader for this remarkable university, is utter nonsense.”
Pruitt challenged those who say regents should not be cheerleaders to watch a graduation ceremony at UWM, where 39 percent are the first in their family to go to college. Or talk with scientists drawn to UW to do their work trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s of cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Or watch one of the system’s excellent teachers inspire of love of learning in the classroom. “Tell me you can’t be a cheerleader for that,” he said.
“Being a cheerleader for this university isn’t beneath you as a regent, it’s your highest calling,” Pruitt concluded.