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New Wisconsin Regents president aims to reshape state's higher education system

John Behling on the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire campus on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. Photo courtesy of Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

First Board of Regents president from Chippewa Valley lauds value of UW System education

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — John Behling doesn't have to look far to see the transformative power of a degree from the University of Wisconsin system.

The Eau Claire attorney, who took over last month as the first UW System Board of Regents president from the Chippewa Valley, points to himself as an example of how a diploma from a UW campus can be what he calls a "great equalizer."

"I grew up as a farm kid from Cumberland, and now I'm the president of the Board of Regents," Behling said. "Without that degree, I never could have gotten to this point."

The value of education was promoted in his family despite the hardship his dad faced in dropping out of school at age 8 to help run the family dairy farm after Behling's grandfather was disabled in a hunting accident. Behling and his five siblings took the lesson to heart, as all of them became first generation college graduates, even though Behling acknowledged he wasn't always the best student in high school or college.

Representatives of area UW campuses are hoping Behling's appreciation for the UW System — he got his bachelor's degree from UW-River Falls and his law degree from UW-Madison — and regional ties will make him a strong advocate for their universities and a system that has endured a tense relationship with Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature in recent years.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said he believes it will benefit all of the campuses in the northern and western parts of the state to have a regents president from outside the Madison-Milwaukee area.

"It just brings a different perspective. People in those cities often have different thoughts on priorities and what's important for the state," Schmidt said, adding that it also can't hurt to have the regents president's ear when advocating for campus projects and initiatives.

Likewise, UW-Stout Provost Patrick Guilfoile said it's always helpful when Board of Regents members are familiar with campuses and thus he believes it can only be positive that Behling has been on the Menomonie campus and is familiar with its unique mission as the system's only polytechnic college.

Former Regent Ed Manydeeds, an Eau Claire attorney whose term on the board ended in May, leaving only Walker appointees on the panel, said Behling has connections at the Capitol and has the potential to be a powerful ally for area campuses.

Changes studied

Behling, 46, an attorney at Weld Riley and the youngest regents president in at least 30 years, opened his term as president with a speech in Madison laying out his agenda for the next two years. The list included pursuing reforms that would make it easier for UW institutions to recruit chancellors from outside academia and ensure all students have the freedom to express their views on campuses. Those items will be on the agenda at the next Board of Regents meeting Oct. 5 and 6 at UW-Stout in Menomonie.

Regarding chancellor recruitment, Behing said the practice should be streamlined because sometimes it takes too long — nine or 10 months — to settle on a candidate. And with a recent study indicating that nearly 60 percent of U.S. chancellors are at least 60 years old, it's important to expand the pool of potential candidates, he said.

"I think we need to make sure our pool is dynamic and diverse and includes people from other facets outside of academia, people from the private sector, perhaps government leaders," Behling said, stressing that a new policy wouldn't mandate that chancellors come from the private sector.

He cited former Indiana GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, now president of Purdue University, and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, now head of the University of Massachusetts, as examples of people with different backgrounds who have accomplished good things for state universities.

However, Geoff Peterson, chairman of the political science department at UW-Eau Claire and campus faculty representative to the UW System, said some faculty likely would have concerns about being led by someone with no background in the academic world.

"The concern is that bringing in people who have no familiarity with higher education is like bringing in a CEO to run a company who doesn't have any familiarity with that industry," Peterson said. "That person would face a steeper learning curve when it comes to understanding what the institution needs."

Guilfoile also cautioned that while diverse viewpoints can be helpful, it is often difficult for people from outside of academia to understand the importance and success of the shared governance tradition already in place at state universities in which faculty and staff have a voice in campus decisions.

Free speech

The free expression initiative stems from concerns at some campuses around the country that certain voices, particularly politically conservative speakers, are being shouted down or otherwise squelched. Behling said he has directed UW System President Ray Cross and his team to review current policies and develop potential changes that would ensure students' free speech rights, including a disciplinary process for violations.

"On our campuses it must be civil and it must be safe," Behling said.

Schmidt, who called himself a staunch supporter of free speech, said he is not aware of any issues or complaints about freedom of expression at UW-Eau Claire. He noted that President Donald Trump spoke on campus a week before last fall's election even though it wasn't popular with some people on campus.

Schmidt supports the concept of having strong guidelines in place protecting free speech rights on campuses.

"I've always said there's no idea too dangerous to discuss on a university campus," he said.

Guilfoile agreed that free speech is at the heart of democratic society and pointed out that a focus of the new Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation opening at UW-Stout this fall will be to facilitate civil and rational debate and research on civil liberty issues such as freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly.

Tackling tension

The outlined priorities weren't well received by some critics who fear the regents under Behling, who worked for 10 years in the administration of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, will seek changes sought by GOP Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

In Twitter responses after Behling's speech, Nick Fleisher, an associate professor of linguistics at UW-Milwaukee, called it "an appalling opening salvo from Behling" and said the new president "has laid out a deeply anti-faculty platform" that is "fundamentally at odds with the regents' role and duty to support the university."

"With 44,000 employees, you're always going to have critics," Behling said, pledging to listen to all voices.

Schmidt recalled that he served on the regents' task force, led by Behling, that recommended changes to faculty tenure rules that were unpopular with UW faculty. Though the changes seen as weakening tenure protection and giving chancellors greater authority to lay off professors were controversial, Schmidt said Behling led the panel in a thoughtful and respectful way and allowed everyone to comment.

Manydeeds confirmed the board was told by legislative leaders that they would implement a new tenure policy if the regents didn't do it themselves.

The adopted changes modernized tenure and made UW policy more consistent with peer systems, said Behling, who maintained that addressing the perception by some legislators that tenure meant a job for life led to what he described as the "best budget we have seen in years."

Though the 2017-19 state budget hasn't been finalized, the Joint Finance Committee has approved an increase of about $40 million in the UW System budget after the UW endured hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts during the past two biennial budgets.

The tentative 2017-19 UW budget also includes 2 percent pay raises for faculty and staff in each of the next two years, something Behling, Schmidt and Guilfoile all said is important to retaining quality professors.

"In order to be the best, we have to keep the best," Behling said.

In recent years, Manydeeds said, a tense relationship has prompted the board to reach out increasingly to legislators and the governor's staff to educate them about what the system does and how and why it spends allocated money.

Behling, who acknowledged the "severed relationship" between the UW System and the Legislature in recent years, said he has visited the state Capitol every other week since becoming president to rebuild relationships, a commitment he hopes will lead to an "even better budget" in two years.

That's certainly something faculty and administrators would support.

"Any move in that direction is a good thing," Peterson said.

Guilfoile said the budget increase is a sign that legislators understand the value of the UW System as an economic driver for the state.

"It seems that things are moving in a positive direction," he said, "and I think the budget reflects that."

Schmidt agreed, saying it seems like the relationship between the UW and the Legislature has "turned the corner" and he is optimistic Behling will be a good person to help chart a new path.

"I feel very positive about the future of UW-Eau Claire and the system as a whole," Schmidt said, "and I think President Behling is a big part of that."