By Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
On Nov. 1, a week to the day after Ray Cross, University of Wisconsin System president of five years, announced his intent to retire, faculty representatives from each of the 13 UW campuses sat in a meeting in Madison to discuss the upcoming search for his replacement.
"And literally while we were in the discussion, the email came in to faculty reps announcing the composition of the committee and announcing that they were going to meet in December to take their charge and get working," said Kathleen Dolan, a distinguished professor at UWM and chair of the faculty senate's university committee, said at a faculty senate meeting last week.
The search committee had no faculty. No staff. The committee's sole student, Torrey Tiedeman, already sits on the Board of Regents.
Further, the committee appears to have only one person of color: Edmund Manydeeds III, a regent who is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
That composition has raised skepticism, particularly since it's tasked with a big job: finding the best candidate to lead the state's largest producer of college graduates into the ever-uncertain, ever-changing higher education landscape of tomorrow.
The new president will be tasked with steering the system through a transformative era that experts say will make or break universities nationwide. Taxpayer dollars flowing into the system continue to languish, tuition remains frozen where it was in 2013 and enrollment continues to drop while student debt continues its relentless climb.
What's more, the students of tomorrow will be more diverse and have vastly different needs than they do today. Demographic experts nationwide say schools can anticipate rising enrollment among students of color, who have historically not been supported.
The Journal Sentinel asked UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch three times if any members of the committee other than Manydeeds identified as a person of color. It did not receive a direct response.
UW Regent President Andrew Petersen said in a statement to the Journal Sentinel that the team he appointed — which includes five regents (including Tiedeman), one former regent, two chancellors and a provost — is a "well-credentialed" committee "representing diverse interests and viewpoints of the board, academic leadership, faculty and students."
And he said time is of the essence.
"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.
He went on to say there would be multiple opportunities for public input in the process.
But those opportunities to participate can't compare to the power of being in the room where the biggest decisions are made, faculty have countered. And even some university leaders have expressed concerns.
"I talked personally to regent leadership today about the issue," UWM Chancellor Mark Mone told the faculty senate Thursday, moments before the group passed a resolution asking for the committee to be expanded. "What I laid out was the precedent is concerning. I'm faculty, we're faculty. As much as you can do in terms of having a sense of inclusion and really saying we're going to seek input, it's not the same as being at the table. Period."
Mone said his main concern is that whoever is chosen as the next president will have "an uphill battle for at least the first year or two if you don't have faculty voice."
Mone told the Journal Sentinel following the meeting that he does have confidence in Regent Michael Grebe’s leadership as chair of the committee and was also confident that the search would be participative and inclusive overall.
Faculty representatives at UWs in Green Bay, Stevens Point, River Falls, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Whitewater, Milwaukee and Stout— nine of the system's 13 schools — have passed resolutions calling out the lack of representation on the search and screen committee and are asking the regents to expand the group. UW-Parkside's faculty senate will consider a resolution soon.
Student and staff governments are also considering resolutions to the same effect: UW-Stout's Student Association passed a resolution this week and UW-Milwaukee's is considering one, too.
At least four members of the Wisconsin Legislature, Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, and Sens. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, and Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, also sent letters to the Board of Regents asking for an expansion of the committee.
On Tuesday, a prominent union and a professional organization for faculty, the AFT-Wisconsin's Higher Education Council (formerly the American Federation of Teachers) and the American Association of University Professors-Wisconsin, issued a joint statement calling the decision to not include faculty, staff and more students an indication of “a shocking level of disrespect" and a "troubling lack of humility on the part of the Regents."
"Universities function differently than, say, a corporation does. Faculty and staff actually do most of the day-to-day administration. We do most of the work. Curricular decisions, what kinds of classes are going to be offered, those are decisions that, by necessity, have to be made by people with training in that field," said Jon Shelton, an associate professor at UW-Green Bay and the vice president of higher education for AFT-Wisconsin.
Petersen remained steadfast Friday that the composition of the committee will not change.
This is not the first time that faculty have raised concerns about being cut out of big hiring decisions. Members of the UW-Whitewater faculty senate issued an open letter earlier this year complaining about a lack of faculty voice in the search for their new chancellor.
But one national expert worried that the current composition could actually backfire. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said: "In fact, if you don't have representation, it may thwart the goal of having a streamlined process, because candidates may withdraw if they feel they will not have the support of the community once they're appointed because the process itself is being unethical or lacking in integrity."