By Tom Still
MADISON – If a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin proclaimed the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, someone in the state Legislature would issue a press release demanding proof.
Such is the crisis of confidence these days in the state Capitol over virtually anything to do with the UW System, which for reasons only partly of its own design has become the Michael Jackson of the 2005-2007 state budget debate. Everyone assumes the UW is perpetually “guilty” of something, even if the jury has yet to come back with a verdict.
The biennial budget recommended early Friday (July 1) by the state Senate took another whack at UW spending, cutting $34 million above and beyond reductions already approved by the Assembly. Although the Senate refused to cap tuition – a move that would have further restricted the UW’s ability to pay its way – the budget vote reflected the general anti-university mood that is so pervasive in the Capitol.
Some legislators are steaming over the seven-month leave granted UW-Madison administrator Paul Barrows, the former vice chancellor of student affairs. Others are miffed over car allowances for campus chancellors; the UW’s defense of cloning research; an attempt at UW-Stout to kick the Reserve Officers Training Corps off campus; and other sins, real and imagined.
It may have come too late to rescue the university’s budget, but UW officials played a smart card Thursday when they announced that a Madison lawyer and former Circuit Court judge will conduct an independent investigation into the charges and counter-charges swirling around the Barrows case.
Former Dane County judge Susan Steingass will sort through the Barrows mess and report back to UW System President Kevin Reilly and the No. 2 administrator at UW-Madison, Provost Peter Spear. UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley took himself out of the investigation because he’s too close to the case. Barrows’ lawyer has said he’s fine with the independent report and praised the choice of Steingass.
Barrows was put on paid leave last week at a reduced salary by Wiley, who said he had received complaints that Barrows had sexually harassed women on campus while serving in the vice chancellor’s post. Barrows had just returned from a seven-month paid leave approved by Wiley and triggered in part by a separate, failed relationship with a graduate student. Barrows used banked sick time and vacation days to cover the leave, which university officials say was authorized by his doctor.
Ultimately, the Barrows case may have little or nothing how university rules were enforced or interpreted. In the eyes of legislators, it is a symbol of how the UW operates in a world that doesn’t really exist for most of their constituents. They wonder why Barrows was too ill to work – but well enough to look for other jobs during his leave. They wonder why he received his vice chancellor’s salary during his leave even though that job was eliminated after he left.
It’s not as if Wiley and others at UW-Madison or UW System haven’t tried to answer those questions. It’s simply that legislators aren’t in much of a mindset to accept the answers. The Barrows incident has taken on “last straw” status, and rational answers about university rules and due process don’t engender much sympathy.
That’s why it was wise for UW leaders to stand aside and let Steingass take a stab at sorting it all out. Whatever her investigation reveals, it will stand a chance of passing the Capitol credibility test.
At some point, however, members of the Legislature must ask themselves how deeply they wish to become involved in the day-to-day management of the UW System. The UW Board of Regents exists to provide policy guidance and oversight of UW administrators; does the Legislature want to usurp that role? About 25 percent of UW funding comes from the state and 75 percent from other sources, such as tuition and research grants, yet some lawmakers want a disproportionate percentage of control.
The appointment of former judge Steingass is an important “time out.” Perhaps it will produce a sense of perspective – not only about the Barrows case, but about the tattered relationship between the Legislature and the UW System.