It’s time to start digging into the idea of UW-Madison as a public authority, split off from the UW System, and there’s no better place to start than the top and the proposed Board of Trustees.

The UW-Madison currently answers to an 18-person Board of Regents, made up of 14 people appointed by the Governor for seven year terms, 2 UW System students appointed for two year terms, and the head of the Department of Public Instruction and Technical College system as ex-officio members. Of the 18, the Governor appoints 16 of them. By the end of Walker’s term, he will have appointed 9 of those 16 seats. The Board of Regents is responsible for not just UW-Madison, but also UW-Milwaukee, the other 11 four-year “comprehensives”, the 13 two-year UW Colleges, UW Extension, and the online UW Colleges/UW Extension efforts.

The UW Madison Board of Trustees would be 21 people, of which the Governor appoints 11. The remaining 10 are selected from the various UW constituencies – students, faculty, alumni, staff, and technology transfer community. It appears that these groups select their representative. This is a win for students: currently, the students on the Board of Regents are picked by whatever process the Governor wants, which can include simply being the son of a prominent campaign contributor.

A UW-Madison specific board is a good idea for the University. The constituent groups on the board will be invaluable to provide perspective and to help evolve the University from a 20th century organization and into a 21st century institution. They have crucial experience with the University, and having a guarantee that such experience is at the table is vital.

Until we see the actual text of the Governor’s proposal, we don’t know if the Governor has any requirements on who he or she has to appoint. However, the primary responsibility of this majority block is to watch out for the interests of the people of the State of Wisconsin. Now, I think Scott Walker is a turd who is going to appoint cronies to the Board, but he’s going to do that to the Board of Regents anyway so I’m not going to worry about it for now.

I’m happy with the general concept of this Board of Trustees. I’d be open to looking at ways that such a Board could continue to work with the existing Board of Regents and the UW-Madison staying in the UW System, perhaps as some sort of hybrid model for making decisions specifically for Madison. No matter what happens, with increased flexibilities for Madison the Regents will need to be open to altering its relationship with this campus.

I’m not particularly thrilled about the exact composition of the Board of Trustees. I think it’s slightly too big, and I think the balance of representation is not quite right.

First, of the 10 UW seats – 2 Faculty, 1 staff, 1 student, 2 WARF, 2 Alumni Association, and 2 UW Foundation – that’s too many group-specific seats. WARF, WAA, and Foundation should have 1 seat each, not 2. Their expertise is important, but they should not dominate the UW’s appointment.

Yesterday I thought that the Faculty are underrepresented. I thought that there should be 4 faculty members, one from each division (Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Arts and Humanities, and Social Sciences) I’m starting to rethink that idea, in terms of power balance with the existing faculty governance. The University Committee (UC), which is the leadership of the Faculty Senate, is only 6 members. Do the Board of Trustees faculty members outrank the University Committee? One idea could be to take four members from the UC and put them on the Board of Trustees, but what happens if the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees disagree over something?

One important voice missing from the Board of Trustees is an outside voice. I would very much like to see a spot reserved for a prominent member of academia to help us bring in outside perspective. I would like someone big – the head of the National Science Foundation or NIH, or the leadership of one of the very prominent scholarly associations like AAAS or the American Historical Association. (Yes, I know that will be Bill Cronon soon) We also shouldn’t limit our search to just American institutions. We are a global institution, so let’s not be afraid to bring in a prominent scholar from Europe or Asia or wherever as our voice from outside. It can and should rotate around. I’d be fine with the Governor making this appointment, so long as this person has a strong record of scholarship.

Finally, I’d like the Governor to also have to appoint a student on the Board of Trustees. There are currently two students on the Board of Regents, one of whom has to be a “non-traditional” student. Having multiple students on the committee is vital – first, just strength in numbers. Having someone to back you up is nice on a committee. More importantly, on some issues, students see things different – having students who occasionally disagree is actually empowering, and increases the standing of the student voice on a committee. Two students who always vote in lockstep are easy to dismiss. It could make sense that the Governor has a role in selecting the second student, again to underscore that the student members represent a wide range of the University.

I’d also like to see the Governor appoint a mixture of scholars, community activists, political leaders, and business leaders to his or her portion of the Board. I assume less turd-like Governors will do so.

The changeover of leadership is probably the most visible change if Madison splits from UW System – for most academic and research issue, each campus is already a fairly independent entity. The split from System wasn’t what anyone was asking for, nor is it necessary for the flexibilities the UW-Madison wants and needs. However, if this is what the political reality allows, we need to make it as strong as possible, and there is still room for improvement on the Board of Trustees.