Gov. Scott Walker suggested Wednesday that the University of Wisconsin System could ask its professors to teach one more class per semester to help alleviate the $300 million in cuts he has proposed. 

Walker’s comment — which led a UW professor to say the governor does not understand how the university operates — came a day after he announced he will include the cuts in his biennial budget proposal. That proposal, which Walker will release in full next week, would also give the system more flexibility and autonomy to help it come up with savings, he said.

The state Legislature will consider and alter Walker’s overall biennial budget proposal over the next few months before sending it to Walker’s desk for his signature.

Walker told reporters Wednesday the increased flexibility the UW System would gain as a “public authority,” with more autonomy than a traditional state agency, would bring savings to UW System campuses, responding to chancellors across the system who have warned his proposed cuts will lead to layoffs.

He said his proposed changes would make it easier for the UW System to ask faculty to teach more classes without the impediment of the state, for example.

“They might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class a semester,” Walker said. “Things like that could have a tremendous impact on making sure that we’re preserving an affordable education for all of our UW campuses, but at the same time, we maintain a high-quality education.”

But Grant Petty, president of PROFS, the group that lobbies for UW-Madison faculty, said Walker’s comments reflect he does not understand the current workload for faculty.

“It does seem to portray a lack of understanding of how faculty operates and what they’re actually doing with their time that contributes to education without necessarily being in the classroom,” Petty, a UW professor of atmospheric science, said.

Walker said asking professors to teach more would be possible because the UW System would be able to rework the current shared governance structure under his proposal, part of the increased autonomy the system would get from the state.

Petty said Walker’s comments imply shared governance is an impediment to getting things done at the university, which he said is not the opinion of UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank and other administrators on campus. 

Autonomy for UW System intended to offset proposed cuts

The hope for the UW System is the money it would save by gaining flexibility from state government would make up for the $300 million in proposed cuts, Noel Radomski, director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said.

He said Walker’s proposal would give the UW System more autonomy for construction projects, procurement and purchasing supplies, for example, but it was unclear how much money that would save.

“We will save something, but we have no idea how much,” Radomski said. “And if anyone says they know, they’re lying.”

Radomski said the way the state funds the UW System would change under Walker’s proposal, as well. Instead of line-item grants, which is the current funding model, the UW System would receive a block grant from the state, which would give the system more flexibility in deciding how it would spend those state funds.

Walker’s recommendations would also include an extension of the tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates until 2017, but the state would give the UW System full autonomy over tuition after that.

Many of the new liabilities, Radomski said, are tied to human resources, layoff provisions and contract non-renewals, but he said it was too early to say if every campus in the UW System would see layoffs. He said in general, the hardest hit campuses would be two-year colleges, which currently are extremely dependent on state funds.

UW-Madison, for example, depends much less on state funds than other UW System campuses, as it gets larger amounts of gifts and federal grants.

“The big picture story is whatever happens, UW-Madison will survive,” Radomski said. “We have lots of revenue sources the other campuses don’t have.”

Students, faculty worry shared governance could decrease

The shared governance systems at UW-Madison, including the Associated Students of Madison and PROFS, get their current authority through state statutes, Radomski said, but Walker’s proposal would dissolve that current authority and instead have the UW System write its own shared governance policy.

Radomski said UW System administrators would likely want to simply “copy and paste” the current shared governance language that exists in state law if they have to craft their own policy.

However, Radomski said the fear of faculty and students who benefit from the current shared governance model is that any future UW System shared governance policy would only require a majority from the UW System Board of Regents to be altered. That contrasts with the more difficult process of changing state law, which currently defines shared governance at the UW System.

ASM Legislative Affairs Committee Chair Thomas Gierok said ASM is worried if the public authority model Walker proposed is enacted, students’ voices will be more difficult to hear.

“It all depends on the university and the system to continue their promise to keep shared governance in effect,” Gierok said.

Gierok said ASM plans to coordinate with the UW System to make sure students continue to enjoy the rights they currently have at UW.

In a meeting of the ASM Coordinating Council on Wednesday, UW Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf assured students the current level of shared governance will continue if Walker’s proposal passes and the shared governance structure no longer exists under state law.

“There are a number of universities that have very strong shared governance models that don’t have it written into state statutes,” Mangelsdorf said.

Professors will also experience changes in shared governance if Walker’s proposal is enacted, Radomski said. Petty said his organization is hopeful the effect on shared governance will be minimal.

Petty said that currently, the main concern facing faculty is the effect of the significant budget cut on personnel and programs. He also said restructuring their relationship with the state while dealing with a tightened budget would be difficult.

“It’s a terrible combination to come at the same time,” Petty said.

Lawmakers express concern about tuition

With decreased revenue from the state budget and a freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition until 2017, UW will look to either reduce costs or increase revenue somewhere else, Radomski said.

Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, said he is concerned the proposed changes could create an influx of-out-of state students.

“For this to be a good deal for the taxpayers, we wouldn’t want to see that go up dramatically,” Murphy said.

Murphy said he is also concerned about what will happen after the additional proposed two-year tuition freeze is over. He said once the UW System has complete autonomy over tuition rates, tuition could rise significantly, even into the double-digits.

Walker’s announcement also proposed giving the UW System complete autonomy over the current Minnesota-Wisconsin reciprocity system, where residents of Minnesota pay near in-state tuition for schools in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin residents enjoy the same for colleges and universities in Minnesota.

On paper, the UW System public authority looks like it would allow the schools to decrease the number of Minnesota residents accepted each year to allow for more tuition revenue for students from other states, but it is unlikely this would play out in reality, Radomski said. In order for UW to modify the existing system, Minnesota would have to agree with any changes, he said.

“It requires them to renegotiate, and if you cannot successfully renegotiate, you have to stick with the existing agreement,” Radomski said.

Other Republican lawmakers also expressed concern the UW’s new autonomy would lead to tuition being handled in a way that is unfair to taxpayers and students.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, a longtime critic of the UW System, said in a statement Tuesday he is worried the UW System Board of Regents would be able to hike tuition at unknown amounts.

“The Governor’s proposal on the UW System would leave tuition-paying middle class families absolutely defenseless from potentially massive spikes in tuition and fees starting in 2017,” Nass said. “I don’t trust the unelected Board of Regents to prioritize middle class families.”

Walker told reporters Wednesday large tuition increases after 2017 should not be a concern.

“I have every reason to believe that the regents and the leadership team will want to continue to keep that affordable for students and families across the state,” Walker said.

Emily Neinfeldt and Riley Vetterkind contributed to this story.