Senate republicans politicize Wisconsin higher ed by withholding confirmations of Board of Regents appointees

Partisan infiltration of Board confirmation process in the Wisconsin Senate risks politicizing educational institutions

· Apr 14, 2022 Tweet

Jason Chan/The Badger Herald

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents finds itself at a standstill as a dozen of Governor Evers’ appointees to Wisconsin’s higher education management systems remains unconfirmed in the state Senate. This includes five picks for the state technical college system board and seven for the UW Board of Regents. 

The job the Board is most well known for is its role in selecting and appointing the 13 Chancellors that preside over each UW System institution. With Chancellor Rebecca Blank recently resigning from UW-Madison to pursue a career at Northwestern University, the Board of Regents now finds itself desperately seeking a replacement with an approaching deadline to announce a successor to Blank. 

While a recent policy change has allowed for some extra assistance — with 21 additional members helping the Board in its search — the hiring process itself will come down to the 18 appointed Regents. 

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It is here where the search for a new Chancellor may hit a critical snag. With a third of the governor’s total Board appointees unconfirmed, no progress can truly be made in this process. This situation is also not likely to change for the remainder of the year now that the legislative session has ended.

The issue now lies in the hypothetical scenario of a Republican Governor being elected in the fall, at which point entirely new applicants could be chosen and immediately approved by the conservative-majority Senate. If this were to happen, the norm of appointing new members directly after terms expire would be broken, leaving the Board of Regents on the precarious edge of becoming part of a partisan agenda. 

Experts are concerned about how this will affect the search for a chancellor in many different regards, the most obvious being the delay in being able to fully select and approve a candidate while the Board of Regents is out of service. This would leave any new chancellor with very little time to become acclimated to the UW-Madison environment. There are also concerns that the obvious political battle happening between Democrats and Republicans for control of the education system may leave potential candidates concerned about throwing their hat in the ring for chancellor. 

In response to the holdup, Evers called out the Republican Senators refusing to engage in the democratic transfer of power.

“It’s wrong-headed, it’s clearly political, and it’s affecting the work these boards are doing every day,” Evers said.

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Of the 18 appointed members, 16 are chosen by the governor, who are then confirmed by the State Senate. As such, a significant portion of Wisconsin’s top higher education management team is influenced directly by both the Governor’s office and Wisconsin Senators, which are two highly politicized bodies. This can lead to a deadlock in the Board of Regents appointment process when the Governor and the Senate majority are opposing parties. With each of these offices prioritizing partisan goals, it is not surprising to see the education sector becoming a political battleground.

Scenarios such as these are not unheard of. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court found itself one member shy upon the death of Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Former President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the position well in advance of any political deadline. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, withheld the confirmation for eight months, with Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell calling any appointment to the Supreme Court before the election void because “the American people should have a say in the court’s election.”

Strategizing nominee confirmations around elections is a very common occurrence in highly partisan environments. Using the battle for the Supreme Court again as an example, Donald Trump’s conservative nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, was appointed to the court following the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg with complete Republican support, including Senator McConnell —only a month before the 2020 election. This complete reversal in ideology displays the double standard being held between political parties. 

If Evers’ Regent appointees are withheld confirmation until after the fall elections, any semblance of bipartisan neutrality will be lost. The Board of Regents will become, in essence, a new political office as opposed to one dedicated solely to education. This could have rippling effects across the UW System, trickling all the way down from upper management to the students who attend these universities. 

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The Board of Regents plays a big role in the allocation of university resources, which can influence everything from which buildings get construction priority to what departments have to cut content from their curriculum. This is not inherently a negative thing — having a selected board which can efficiently make and implement decisions across UW institutions ensures that every university is equally funded and operating to a universal state standard. But should this body become partisan, the question arises of whether or not the decision the board’s members make is for the benefit of the students, or of the Regents’ political party. 

In an issue of The Atlantic, Bertrand Russell argues, “it is this motive, in the main, which determines the subjects taught, the knowledge which is offered, and the knowledge which is withheld.”

In making education political, Wisconsin would threaten the content being presented in UW classrooms. This is especially concerning in the modern education system which has been under siege in recent years on the presentation of politically controversial topics such as the critical race theory. 

The management of our universities cannot become political. If Evers’ appointees remain unconfirmed in the months leading up to the midterm elections in November, Wisconsin’s universities face the threat of becoming a political vessel rather than a place of higher learning. If we are to keep our state truly democratic, we must be allowed to learn about politics without the threat of bias or the fear of political retribution.

Fiona Hatch ([email protected]) is a freshman studying political science and international studies.


This article was published Apr 14, 2022 at 8:59 am and last updated Apr 12, 2022 at 8:38 pm


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