Tom Loftus' six-year run as a member of the University of Wisconsin System's Board of Regents came to an end on Friday.
Loftus, 66, was regarded as one of the most politically savvy regents and earlier this year emerged as an outspoken critic of the plan contained in Gov. Scott Walker's 2011-13 budget proposal that would have granted UW-Madison public authority status and split it away from the rest of the UW System.
"A proposal to remove UW-Madison from the UW System in the budget bill is a guarantee that we will return to the tribalism of the past, when each campus and their legislators fought for their turf and decried any perceived advantage one campus might get that they did not," Loftus said after news of the plan broke in February. "The final budget is decided eventually by a few leaders in the middle of the night. I know. I was there. I remember the pitiful scene of chancellors emerging from the shadows to plead with me like beggars with briefcases."
Loftus certainly knows how the political game is played. He was a member of the Wisconsin Legislature as a Democrat from Sun Prairie from 1977 to 1991, serving as speaker of the Assembly his final eight years. Loftus then served as the United States ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1997, and was a special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2005.
Although Loftus' regent term expired May 1, he could have continued serving until Walker names a replacement and that person is confirmed by the state Senate. Although no replacement has been named, Loftus decided to step down from his post following Thursday and Friday's Board of Regents meetings on the UW-Madison campus.
The Capital Times sat down with Loftus to get his thoughts on a range of higher education-related topics. Following is an edited transcript:
Capital Times: Why were you so opposed to the proposal tucked into the governor's budget and backed by Chancellor Biddy Martin to grant UW-Madison public authority status and to break it away from the UW System?
Tom Loftus: Skip the details of the plan, but I just don't think that Madison should become a quasi-private university. This public authority model would have changed the nature of the university; it would have broken the bonds with the people of the state of Wisconsin. Yes, we want Madison to get what it needs to succeed, but it's not a Michigan or Virginia.
CT: Various UW System and UW-Madison officials have been asking for a range of freedoms from state oversight for at least two decades. So why were so many so opposed to the Martin/Walker proposal?
TL: Being a veteran of so many budgets, I just felt right away that this was absolutely the wrong venue for this idea. It did not belong in the budget bill. The second thing is there were never enough votes to break up the system from Day One. It was a non-starter politically. I have to credit (system President) Kevin Reilly for a good end result. He engineered a united position with the other chancellors and they told the Legislature, "We all need these flexibilities." So what came out of this mess is a good start and a building block for the future.
CT: Despite gaining some flexibilities in the budget bill, the UW System is taking another massive budget cut, losing $250 million in state aid over the next two years. Do you envision a day when the public will put more of an emphasis on funding higher education? Or are those days gone forever?
TL: This is my biggest problem with all the focus on the public authority proposal. I was so ... angry isn't the right word, but I was so disappointed that virtually no one had their eye on the ball. They didn't even know what the ball was. The ball is the number, the base amount of state funding the system receives.
CT: But realistically, with the new Republican leadership in charge of the state, could anything have been done to reduce the hit to the UW System?
TL: Yes. It's happened in the past that there have been deals made. There were options. But everyone was consumed with this public authority question. There could have been focus on the second year of the biennium. We had already seen a revised revenue projection that's coming into the state. So if there had been some focus on the second year of the biennium, in 2012-13, I think they could have got the Legislature to put a better number in there for the UW System.
CT: Some backers of the public authority proposal say that UW System leadership and the Board of Regents were being selfish; they did everything they could to kill the public authority proposal because they didn't want to lose a highly regarded member.
TL: I think that's fair. The overriding objective was to keep the system together.
CT: Backers of this plan also say the only reason many people opposed granting UW-Madison public authority status is because it came from Walker. Is there some truth to that?
TL: Yes, and there were certainly grounds for this. The authority was an existential threat to many in the system. Think of the context: mass demonstrations, anger, a Legislature under siege for good reasons.
CT: Is it possible giving UW-Madison its own governing board and granting it additional autonomy is a good idea?
TL: Going forward I am open to anything as long as the system stays intact. But process is important. Hearings need to be held on this issue. Everyone in the state needs to be in on the discussion. This authority idea sounds like something good in a think tank paper or an op-ed. But it's not a real plan. I would very much like to have David Ward's views after he has been on the job (as UW-Madison's interim chancellor) for a while.
CT: News of Martin cutting a deal with Gov. Walker to break UW-Madison free from the system first broke publicly in February. How did you find out about this proposal and what was your initial reaction to it?
TL: I found out about it when the memo (revealing the plan) was leaked (and then published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). I was very surprised. I asked her to get the proposal out of the state budget. That was my first reaction -- that no good can come of this.
CT: Shortly after this news broke, a special regents meeting was called to discuss the proposal. Rumors were running rampant on the UW-Madison campus that the regents planned to dress down -- or even bring down -- Chancellor Martin. None other than highly regarded UW-Madison professor Bill Cronon wrote to the regents begging them not to inflict any wounds in a "moment of anger." In those emotional days immediately after the news broke, were there talks of firing Martin?
TL: This was the basic question I would get out on the street: What are you going to do? There was never one day or one minute when it was contemplated to fire her. It's counterintuitive and hard to believe, but it's true. The overarching concern here was to do no harm. Let's get out of this predicament with nothing bad happening.
CT: Your replacement on the Board of Regents and others will be appointed by Walker. Will that help the relationship between the Board of Regents and governor's office?
TL: That will help. One of the reasons I'm getting off when I don't have to is so he can make an appointment. That will start a fresh discussion as the Senate considers the first Governor Walker regent.