Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 fight with public-sector unions sparked huge protests—and elevated him into a national figure in conservative politics. Now, as he eyes a run for president, he is targeting another group on the public payroll: university professors.
Mr. Walker, a Republican, has proposed a two-year tuition freeze and a $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System’s budget—about a 13% drop next year from current funding levels. Under the plan, Mr. Walker would shift control of the university system from the state to a new independent authority. He has also said that he thinks faculty needs to work harder.
Faculty have defended their work ethic and denounced the proposal as providing inadequate support for higher education that could lead to eventual tuition increases for financially pressed students.
“Some have raised concerns about this proposed reform,” Mr. Walker said in prepared remarks for his Tuesday night speech on the budget to lawmakers. “These are some of the same claims we heard four years ago when our Act 10 reforms were enacted.”
That 2011 law ended most collective-bargaining rights for public employees and prompted a recall election that drew participation from national labor groups and conservative activists around the country. Mr. Walker prevailed in the recall and then was re-elected in 2014.
The new proposal could give a boost to Mr. Walker’s expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination. While he hasn’t announced his candidacy, he is hiring staff and attending events in neighboring Iowa, home to the nation’s first presidential caucuses.
“I know Iowa, and I know the voters in Iowa, and a fight with university professors is certainly not going to hurt him in that state,” said former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who briefly ran for the GOP’s 2008 presidential nomination.
Last week on a Milwaukee talk radio show, Mr. Walker drew a connection between his higher-education proposal and his move to limit the power of public-employee unions. He said both aimed to restructure government with an eye toward cost control.
Then, Mr. Walker called into question the work ethic, efficiency and productivity of university professors. “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work,” Mr. Walker said. “This authority frees up the UW administration to make those sorts of requests, which I think we need not only here but across the country.”
University of Wisconsin Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said that Mr. Walker’s proposal to cut the UW system loose from the bureaucracy of the state was welcome, but that the cost cuts were troubling.
“The cut is too big for the university, and it’s too big for the state,” she said. Regarding Mr. Walker’s comments about increasing professors’ course loads, Ms. Blank said they showed a “serious misunderstanding” of how the school works. She said that 15% of her professors last year received outside job offers, and as chancellor, she bids against those offers in part by cutting the course loads of researchers so they will stay.
“I am an economist,” she said. “I live in a market.”
Michael Poliakoff, a vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit focused on academic excellence and accountability, said Mr. Walker was pursuing an important strategy to cut costs in higher education. “I strongly believe that teaching productivity does need to be increased, and the fact is there are places where it has been done very successfully,” he said. “Even a marginal 10% increase in teacher productivity means an enormous boost for student access, it means more courses are available, and it straightens out a lot of bottlenecks.”
Mr. Walker’s plan comes as he looks to bring spending in line with a slowdown in revenue growth following recent tax cuts he backed, which have left Wisconsin with a projected operating deficit.
States have cut appropriations to higher education across the nation in the past decade, especially after the recession. In 2013, Wisconsin subsidized each public-college student with $6,105, down from $8,790 in 2001, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. In the same period, tuition increased to $5,475 from $3,647. The numbers are similar across the country.
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, said he likes to see Mr. Walker taking steps to overhaul how the system operates, but knows the governor’s comments have bothered some teaching in the state and will likely be controversial.
Rep. Peter Barca, the Democratic minority leader, said Mr. Walker’s proposed restructuring didn’t provide anywhere near the savings needed to make up for the funding cuts. “I’m open to more flexibility,” Mr. Barca said. But he said Mr. Walker links university changes with spending cuts “as if that is somehow going to fund this roughly 13% cut, and I know of no close observer of higher-education policy who believes that’s even remotely the case.”
—Reid J. Epstein contributed to this article.