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“A Patronage System:” Over last two governor administrations, UW System regents defined by political influence and isolation from students

Regents have donated almost $700,000 in political donations over the last two governor administrations.

Image By: Genevieve Wahl

Former regent Nino Amato was never one to mince words.

During his two-year tenure on the Board of Regents — the UW System’s governing body — Amato made a name for himself as someone undaunted by calling out his peers. He cemented this reputation in his final address as a regent in August 2004.

“The University of Wisconsin has sadly become a ‘gated community,” he said. “And an unacceptable number of young people and their families in our state are on the outside looking in.”

In the state’s 2003-’04 budget, under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, the UW System raised tuition by 18 percent to make up for budget cuts. Since then, state funding for the school system has seen a steady decline and tuition has increased further to replace the loss of revenue.

For Amato, the story of tuition increases underscores a larger problem created by the UW System and maintained by the Board of Regents, which governs the system as a whole: the students are no longer the priority.

“I have seen ... both under the Doyle administration as well as the Walker administration that regents, by and large — not all, but by and large, have forgotten that we’re here for the students,” Amato said.

Stephanie Marquis, UW System spokesperson, referenced a state statute which she says “clearly states that regents are to serve the UW System and its students.”

Don Moynihan, director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, said that over his last 12 years at the university, he has seen a “deterioration in relationship” between the regents and faculty along with students.

“I think the shift in tone on the part of the regents has been one where they seem to be more concerned with representing the views of the Legislature,” Moynihan said.

He added that campuses are being used like a “petri dish” for the testing of political ideologies from the state government.

Nick Hillman, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, said, “some of the issues that they’ve focused on makes it unclear what the educational purpose is behind their agendas.”

According to Amato, the board has become a patronage system.

Using donation data accumulated by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, The Daily Cardinal found that between 2003-’16, UW regents and their family members contributed almost $700,000 to political candidates running for state office.

Data wasn’t available for former regents Jessica Schwalenberg, Tommie Jones, Milton McPike, Kevin Opgenorth, Beth Richlen, Christopher Semenas, Thomas Shields, Aaron Wingad, Eve Hall, Janice Mueller, Drew Peterson or UW-Eau Claire student regent Ryan Ring.

Between 2003-’11, during Doyle’s term, political donations totaled more than $462,000. Of that, $250,000 was contributed to Democrats, $164,000 to Republicans and nearly $50,000 to candidates without party affiliation.

More than half of the Democratic total went to to Doyle specifically.

From 2011-’16, political contributions followed a similar trend, except the sum totals were significantly more partisan. Over that period, regents gave $214,000 in political contributions, $212,000 of which went to Republicans — one hundred times more than what went to Democrats. Gov. Scott Walker, like his predecessor, received more than half of the total dollars given to candidates in his party.

It’s not entirely unusual that board members’ contributions would politically align. The governor nominates regents to seven-year tenures which are confirmed by the state Senate. No law prohibits regents from making political contributions.

But for Amato, the partisanship is troublesome.

“Because of the partisanship and the whole money in politics and the fiscal crisis that the university is in, instead of making your case and expressing your vision, you’re ‘kowtowing’ to whoever is governor,” he said.

Over the last two administrations, if UW regents have been fighting for more funding for the UW System, they’ve been largely ineffective.

In Doyle’s first year as governor, the UW System’s amount of state funding, adjusted for inflation, fell from $1.42 billion to $1.29 billion.

In Walker’s first year, the system’s budget fell from $1.28 billion to $1.06 billion.

In the most recent budget, the UW System received a boost of more than $100 million in state funding with an additional $31.5 million tied into performance metrics.

Clif Conrad, who has been a professor of higher education at UW-Madison for 30 years, says that as of late, the regents’ focus has been directed too narrowly at the university’s ability to create immediate jobs, a characteristic that doesn’t speak to the true scope of the UW System's impact.

“Historically, UW Colleges and Universities have done an exceptional job at envisioning our public universities as contributing to the public good,” Conrad said. “I would invite the regents to sit back and rethink going beyond the business model and beginning the discourse to think about what is a public university in the 21st century.”

Most recently, the regents voted to merge the system’s two-year UW College and UW-Extension schools with its four-year campuses. Faculty and administrators across the state said they felt left behind and ignored as the regents decided to move forward on the decision with little consultation.

Conrad said faculty often react harshly to systematic changes, although he noted that the regents moved swiftly on their decision.

“I think that it would be important that the regents ... take a step back and be transparent about how the decision was made so quickly to restructure our system,” he said. “I think it’s very important they be inclusive, that we need to draw on diverse voices and it’s not clear that that happened here.”

As universities look toward the future, the regents’ priorities remain unclear.

For Moynihan, regents should be stewards for a school system that has served the state for years.

“You have essentially an institution that generations of Wisconsin taxpayers have invested in and it’s — in my view — in the best interest of those taxpayers to keep that institution strong and healthy,” he said.

Hillman added that maintaining higher education is a shared responsibility between the taxpayers, students and faculty.

“I think it’s possible to have regents who are both concerned about public stewardship of resources and in that process, are doing right by students,” he said.

Amato believes this approach is going to take significant restructuring. In his final speech as a regent in 2004, he said just that.

“This attitude is not helping our cause for affordable education in Wisconsin,” Amato said. “And this mentality needs to stop.”

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