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Board of regents bill could spark project battles

Paul Snyder
paul.snyder@dailyreporter.com

A state lawmaker’s attempt to distribute representation on the UW System board of regents based on geography might spark more competition among universities for project money.

State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, wants to change the composition of the board by directing the governor to appoint at least one member from each of the state’s seven geographical regions.

At a public hearing on the bill Tuesday, Lassa argued the board’s current makeup, with 10 of the 14 citizen members from Dane or Milwaukee counties, illustrates the reason for the bill. No appointed regent resides near campuses in Kenosha, Whitewater, Superior, Eau Claire, Menomonie or River Falls.

“I think it’s a good idea for the board of regents to have diversity and a balance and understanding of all areas in the state if there’s talk of construction for new classrooms or dorms,” Lassa said.

But state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said divvying up regents into regions could undermine regional cooperation.

“The governor makes appointments based on a commitment to the statewide system,” he said. “I think the regents have treated the smallest and remote campuses with the same degree of concern they would the University of Wisconsin-Madison or Milwaukee.”

Jauch said lawmakers too often claim ownership for municipalities or projects in need of state money, and that should not happen on the board of regents.

“I think you could end up in a position where Marathon, Stevens Point, Barron and Superior are pitted against Green Bay and Sheboygan,” he said. “Frankly, I think any regent should be considered theirs just as much as ours.”

The current board’s commitment to all state projects was displayed earlier this year when it put forward the Swenson Hall project at UW-Superior for state money to get expedited approval. Jauch and state Rep. Nick Milroy, D-Superior, then advanced the approval through the state Building Commission.

David Miller, UW System vice president for capital planning and budget, said any argument that the board places preference on larger schools from a construction standpoint is off-base.

“Look at the last three biennia,” he said. “We’ve had major projects in Oshkosh, La Crosse, Platteville, Whitewater, Stout and Superior. All of them were large, new cornerstone academic buildings, and this is just in the five years I’ve been here.”

The reason UW-Madison may be able to do more, Miller said, is simply because the school brings in more gift money.

“I can understand Sen. Lassa’s concern,” he said, “because UW-Eau Claire might be the last school in the system to get a major new building.”

Lassa said her bill is not based on construction needs of particular UW System schools, but rather to ensure each school will have one member representing its needs and interests when it comes to decisions ranging from building projects to naming chancellors and deans.

But Jauch said that’s precisely why he will not support the bill.

“Right now, the Wisconsin idea is alive and well,” he said. “I think it discourages that if you have regents who feel they have to fight for ‘my’ area or ‘my’ campus.”

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