The funding cuts are too deep. The flexibility is welcome, but the public authority model needs much more study. Shared governance and tenure must be preserved.

Those were the basic points made by members of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents on Thursday after hours spent discussing the message they want to take to state lawmakers regarding Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal. That plan cuts funding to the System by $300 million in the next two years and shifts oversight from the state to a newly created public authority headed by the Regents.

“They’ll make a decision and they’ll make it in the best interest of the state,” said Regent David Walsh of Madison about the lawmakers who will decide the state budget. “But ... it’s time we step forward and send a message to the people of Wisconsin that this is wrong. It’s bad for Wisconsin, and it’s not who we are.”

Regents approved a measure that sends a four-pronged message to lawmakers: Substantially reduce the cuts, grant the System operating flexibility either through the public authority or changes to state law, provide it with a dedicated funding stream and approve changes that allow the System to implement greater operating flexibilities.

Regents and chancellors from throughout the 26-campus system vowed to fight back against what would be the largest two-year state funding cut in its history. The cut comes on the heels of major state cuts to the System in five of the last six budget cycles spanning Democratic and Republican administrations.

“It’s been cut, cut, cut and now this enormous hatchet job,” said Regent Margaret Farrow, a former Republican lawmaker and lieutenant governor.

UW System President Ray Cross, who has expressed strong support for the proposed public authority model, told his colleagues that the “vast majority” of legislators have acknowledged that the cuts are too big and will work with System leaders to reduce them.

System financial chief David Miller said the cuts will actually add up to more like $346 million over two years when other line-item cuts are included. The budget calls for $24 million in additional cuts to fund fringe benefits for employees, for example. Cross said the savings the System would gain by not being tethered to state control — about $15 million a year — are hardly enough to offset the proposed cuts.

Sitting at the same table with Regents, chancellors from throughout the System (minus UW-Madison’s Rebecca Blank) said the cuts would mean job losses — UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone predicted cuts of 200 to 300 positions at his campus — in addition to fewer full-time faculty, more adjuncts and bigger class sizes.

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow said he’s committed to avoiding layoffs, noting his employees were not responsible for the budget shortfall that prompted the cuts and shouldn’t lose jobs because of it. He said other cost-saving measures could include outsourcing campus maintenance and getting by with fewer janitors. But students will feel the cuts, he said.

“I don’t know how we do a 21st century higher education system with 1998 funding levels,” he said.

Regents approved creating two task forces to study ways to preserve tenure and shared governance, in which faculty are given a formal role in university decisions, two cherished employment practices on campus.

Along with many other UW-related measures, shared governance and tenure would be stripped from state law under Walker’s proposal and left in the hands of the Board of Regents starting in July 2016.

What happens next with shared governance and tenure has generated substantial concern and criticism from university faculty and students statewide. Board president Michael Falbo said he supports the existing shared governance and tenure provisions fully and wanted to put the matters on public record. The board approved both unanimously. A Regent will chair each task force, which will also include campus administrators, faculty, staff and students, Falbo said.

Falbo additionally asked Regents to approve a just-in-case resolution if state lawmakers move up the proposed public authority to take effect sooner than July 2016, which is when the shift would happen if Walker’s budget proposal goes through.

Regents unanimously approved that resolution. It calls for Regents to adopt identical language to the state laws it would replace. In that case, the task forces would continue to meet and propose new Regent policy once ready, expected to be spring 2016.

Walsh, a Madison lawyer and longtime Regent whose term ends in May, called the proposed public authority a good idea but one that needs to be put on hold for closer scrutiny. He noted that the public authority that now controls UW Hospitals and Clinics didn’t commence until after two years of study.

Walsh said he’s particularly troubled by a proposed funding shift that would see the state hand over one pile of money in a block grant, with yearly increases tied to the consumer price index.

“This is fairy dust,” he said of the notion that the Legislature would hold true to the funding promise. “It’s not something we could rely on.”

Cross later responded that the current model, under which the system never knows how much money it’s going to have from one budget to the next — and more often than not sees that amount cut — “is just as much fairy dust.” At least Regents would know the base funding for the coming years, he said, allowing a smoother, easier planning process.

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