UW president search committee sparks concern for faculty exclusion, 'erosion of shared governance'

By Yvonne Kim, The Cap Times

After sending two letters to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents about the makeup of its presidential search committee, state Rep. Katrina Shankland remains “very concerned” about its decision to exclude faculty and staff from the decision-making table.

On Nov. 1, Board President Andrew Petersen appointed a nine-member search committee to replace UW President Ray Cross, who announced his retirement in October. In response, Shankland, D-Stevens Point, contacted Cross and the Board to express concern about the exclusion of critical voices from the committee.

“This is not just a choice, but a deliberate attempt to further exclude shared governance stakeholders from a process that most affects them,” Shankland said in an interview. “Listening sessions are meaningless compared to having a seat at the table, and it would cost zero dollars and zero political capital to include students, faculty and staff on the search committee.”

The committee members are Regents Petersen, Michael Grebe, Edmund Manydeeds and Mike Jones; Regent Emerita Regina Millner; UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank; UW-Superior Chancellor Renée Wachter; UW-La Crosse Provost Betsy Morgan and Student Regent Torrey Tiedeman.

The search committee is half the size of the 18-member committees appointed for the past two presidential searches in 2004 and 2013. The 2013 committee included five faculty, students and staff, and the 2004 committee also included researchers, professors and a student government president.

Grebe and Petersen responded to Shankland’s letter Nov. 8 with assurances of “broad representation” that will include listening sessions for all community members. They added that the committee is well-suited for a national search with strong competition for qualified higher education leaders.

“In a competitive environment where multiple state systems are actively searching for new presidential leadership, we need a small, nimble and dedicated committee comprised of board and academic leadership that represents diverse interests,” Petersen said in an email statement to the Cap Times. 

Shankland responded to the Board in a second letter Tuesday that competition should only make the board more committed to hearing from a diverse group of voices.

Other lawmakers and academic advocates echoed Shankland’s concerns.

The American Association of University Professors Wisconsin and the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin released a joint statement that the decision “shows a troubling lack of humility on the part of the Regents.” It specifically criticized the appointment of Millner and Wachter, whose terms in office AAUP said have contributed to weakened tenure and faculty governance, respectively.

The AAUP tweeted on Nov. 8 that “excluding the faculty from a presidential search violates AAUP governance standards.”

State Sens. Jeff Smith, Chris Larson and Patty Schachtner also drafted letters of concern to the Regents about its break from tradition.

“The President of the UW System should start their tenure on a firm ground, supported by members of every level of the UW System structure,” Schachtner and Larson wrote in a letter to Cross and the Regents on Nov. 8. “As they lead us into a new era, it would be a detriment to their governance to have been chosen only by a select few.”

The disagreement is reflective of broader rifts in Board policies in recent years that critics say have continued to undermine shared governance. In 2017, then-Regent, now Gov. Tony Evers cast the sole vote against a rule that reduced chancellor search committees from a minimum of 17 to 10 individuals, half of whom are regents, calling it “a solution in search of a problem.”

Evers did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Evers’ election made Shankland hopeful that regents would be more willing to “take their duty to shared governance seriously,” she said. “I’m really disappointed that they appear to be willingly excluding ... those who most deserve to be at the table.”