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A Brief History of Scott Walker’s War Over Higher Education

Since he was elected Wisconsin’s governor, in 2010, Scott Walker has been waging war against the status quo in higher education. Now he’s running for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

Mr. Walker, who will kick off his campaign on Monday, is considered to be one of the front-runners in the Republican field of more than a dozen declared candidates. As governor, he has earned a reputation for pushing controversial, conservative-minded reforms. Now, as he sets his sights on the White House, here’s a look back at how a few of his efforts to reshape higher education in Wisconsin have fared.

Attack on Collective Bargaining

Mr. Walker took office in January 2011. In February he announced a controversial “budget repair” bill, which, among other things, would strip public-college faculty and staff members of the collective-bargaining rights they won in 2009. Mr. Walker argued that the measure was crucial to plugging a big hole in the state budget.

Professors saw it differently. “We knew during the election campaign that Walker wasn’t friendly to labor unions,” Mark Evenson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin system’s Platteville campus, told The Chronicle at the time, “but we weren’t sure that he’d actually go through with a pretty radical version of what he talked about.”

Did he ever. With Republicans controlling both houses of the state’s Legislature, the measure passed amid furious protests and survived a court challenge.

Mr. Walker’s assault on collective bargaining was a major reason he was the subject of a recall vote in 2012, which he survived in yet another setback for public-employee unions and academic workers.

Treatment of 2 Critics

Mr. Walker has not welcomed criticism. When it emerged, in 2013, that his nominee for a student to serve on the Board of Regents had signed a petition supporting the recall, Mr. Walker withdrew the nomination. He did not elaborate on the decision.

Another critic of Mr. Walker was a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor, William J. Cronon. He was targeted by Wisconsin Republicans who, through a request for Mr. Cronon’s emails, sought to show that he’d misused university resources for partisan aims. The emails Madison released offered no evidence to suggest that.

Autonomy, at a Price

Mr. Walker was behind two proposals to grant public colleges autonomy from the state. First, shortly after he took office, the governor unveiled a plan to grant the Madison flagship autonomy from the larger system, and to lay the groundwork for the Milwaukee campus to do the same. The flagship’s leaders argued that the measure would give them much-needed flexibility (even though it would result in a cut of $250 million in state funds over two years), while system officials opposed it.

That proposal ultimately failed. The friction it created between Madison’s chancellor at the time, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, and system officials was a major reason for her departure, to lead Amherst College, after just three years on the job.

Another version of the autonomy plan was unveiled by Mr. Walker last year. The proposal would have granted the entire system more autonomy from the state while dealing it a budget cut of $300 million over two years. Lawmakers rejected the plan in May, leaving the proposed budget cut intact (it has since been reduced to $250 million).

The ‘Wisconsin Idea’ in the Cross Hairs

One of the most vocal protests against Mr. Walker’s administration erupted in February, when it was revealed that a proposed version of the governor’s budget would strip the state’s revered Wisconsin Idea of its public-service mission. While news outlets turned up evidence that Mr. Walker’s administration had directed budget writers to replace the public-service mission with a focus on meeting “the state’s work-force needs,” the governor tweeted that the changes had been the result of a “drafting error,” which was subsequently corrected.

Mr. Walker, who attended Marquette University but left without a degree, has presided over another attack on a few cherished features of academe: tenure and shared governance. In May a state legislative committee voted to strip protections of tenure and shared governance from state law as part of the state-budget proposal. The Legislature approved the changes, much to the chagrin of faculty members and their advocates on University of Wisconsin system campuses. The system’s regents voted quickly to enshrine those protections in system policy, but faculty members have worried aloud whether that step would be enough to keep tenure intact.

The New Budget

Mr. Walker on Sunday signed the much-debated state budget, which sets in stone the two-year $250-million cut in the University of Wisconsin system and the removal of tenure protections from state statute. The chancellor of the system’s flagship, Rebecca M. Blank, had publicly asked Mr. Walker to exercise his broad veto powers to reverse the controversial tenure measures. He did not.

The university system’s Board of Regents approved a new budget late last week. Hampered by a freeze on resident undergraduate tuition, the budget dips into surplus funds to the tune of $180 million to offset the state cuts. At the Madison campus, 400 positions will be eliminated to cut costs.

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