MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It doesn’t look like the Legislature will support Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to grant the University of Wisconsin System autonomy from state oversight and laws, including the setting of tuition rates, key lawmakers said Tuesday.
Walker proposed turning UW into a public authority while cutting its state funding by $300 million, but there is bipartisan opposition to the plan. University leaders have been trying to get the cut reduced, while others within UW and the Legislature have expressed concerns about removing state oversight of the system.
One of the Legislature’s biggest concerns would be giving UW full authority over setting tuition, lawmakers have said. Walker wants to freeze it the next two years, then leave it up to UW going forward.
The plan “might be on life support,” said Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. He said he’s not convinced system regents would use their new powers to make major changes in how they do business. If they’re not willing to do the work, he said, they shouldn’t get such wide-ranging latitude.
The Legislature may be willing to give UW some additional powers, such as allowing it to control certain purchases that now must go through the state, but “the big hang up” is over tuition, said Mike Mikalesen, chief of staff to Republican Sen. Steve Nass.
“It’s fair to say they’re giving the (Walker) administration and the UW administration one last chance to make the case,” Mikalsen said.
Mikalsen said Walker’s plan is in “great jeopardy” based on conversations Nass has had with other lawmakers. Republican Sen. Rob Cowles, who has been vocal in saying the cut needs to be reduced, said Tuesday that the autonomy plan was “in trouble.”
“Even if we don’t do the authority, we could give them flexibility on other things,” Cowles said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos last week said he was concerned that UW had shown no willingness to make changes in the area of shared governance and tenure. But Vos said he wasn’t yet giving up on some version of the plan going forward.
The UW Regents earlier this month passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to give them the specific authority to adopt tenure and shared governance policies exactly as they’re currently written in state law. Under Walker’s plan, those statutes would end on July 1, 2016, the date when autonomy would begin.
The American Association of University Professors last week came out against Walker’s plan, calling it “a radical assault on one of the nation’s premiere institutions of public higher education.”
It said the plan could “profoundly undermine tenure, due process, and shared governance in the university system.”
UW System spokesman Alex Hummel wasn’t giving up hope. He said in a statement Tuesday that the proposal is a long way from being set and university officials appreciate the ongoing discussions.
“Everyone’s goal is to empower institutions to achieve greater operational efficiencies,” Hummel said.
A Walker spokeswoman did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
It is premature to say the UW autonomy plan is on life support, said Myranda Tanck, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. However, she said it does appear the Legislature is moving toward a compromise that would include a lower level cut and a lesser degree of autonomy than what Walker proposed.
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