For someone who generates headlines by vigorously attacking the UW every chance he gets, state Rep. Steve Nass is a remarkably quiet man. During long conversations about the UW, the Republican lawmaker from Whitewater sits mostly silent, hands folded, nodding his head as his research assistant, Mike Mikalsen, does the talking.
Mikalsen, who has worked in the Legislature for 16 years, including 12 with Nass, behaves like Nass' critics might expect him to. He sputters and growls and waves his arms. His tone ranges from mild disgust to infinite disdain as he describes the UW's various transgressions.
He also makes more inflammatory comments than his boss. Explaining Nass' 2005 push to make faculty follow codes of conduct, including not making "anti-American" statements, Mikalsen says, "Part of the issue is we have foreign-born professors. Those professors say things."
Nass at one point acknowledges that Mikalsen dominates the conversation about the UW, explaining that legislators often don't have time to delve too deeply into issues. "That's just the nature of the beast," he says. "So it's essential that the Legislature has good staff." Still, at times it seems as though Nass is playing second fiddle to his assistant.
Last year, Nass became chair of the Assembly's Colleges and Universities Committee, which oversees the entire UW System. As the UW's foremost critic, he made good on his reputation, joining his GOP colleagues in the Assembly in backing major cuts to specific UW programs and an overall budget that would, over the next two years, force the System to make $120 million in cuts.
Asked how he chose specific cuts, Nass gives a vague answer about looking for ways to reduce spending. It's Mikalsen who responds: "We know where they're hiding the money. We're able to go after line items."
Nass' attacks on the UW often seem rooted in a larger movement by conservatives to challenge the liberal university system. His idea for a Student Bill of Rights, for example, which would protect students who voice conservative opinions, is based on a proposal by David Horowitz, a prominent conservative author.
Yet the university has made it all too easy for Nass to find things to criticize. Nass and Mikalsen can recite a litany of complaints - all valid - about the UW: a flawed computer system that cost $28 million before university officials pulled the plug; an Eau Claire chancellor who got a $700 monthly car allowance, after the UW had assured the Legislature such perks had ended; a husband and wife from Whitewater who illegally arranged a consulting deal before retiring from the UW; some research cows who were starved on the UW-Madison campus.
"When there's a problem, they try to ignore it," says Nass. "They don't want to talk about it. They go kicking and screaming, instead of recognizing there's a problem."
State Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) says anything the size of the UW System, which has 26 campuses statewide, will have problems. "It's easy to criticize them because they are a big entity and they do stumble occasionally."
But Pocan believes the UW's main problem is that it doesn't do a good enough job of standing up for itself. With thousands of faculty, staff, students and alumni across the state, the UW should be a powerful force in state politics, he says. Instead, it's a perennial target of Republicans like Nass.
"They just don't get the job done," sighs Pocan of the UW's leaders. "So suddenly a Steve Nass - who really has nothing better to do - gets the credit for attacking them."
Seeking 'common sense'
In explaining his views on higher education, Nass points to something that happened when he was a student at UW-Whitewater. He got an F on a test in an American politics class, he says, for disagreeing with his professor's belief that the world would run out of coal by the end of the 20th century. Nass went to another professor to complain.
"He told me, 'You will have to write what she says in the classroom and agree with her,'" says Nass. So for the rest of the semester, Nass did just that, through gritted teeth. He eventually passed the class, though, he says now, "So much for free speech."
Nass graduated from Whitewater in 1978 and later earned a master's degree from the school in 1990. That same year, he was elected to the Assembly, where he has demonstrated his concern for free speech - so long as it is speech with which he agrees.
In 2005, Nass wanted the Board of Regents to order UW-Whitewater to rescind a speaking invitation to Ward Churchill, a Colorado professor who had compared the World Trade Center victims to Nazi Adolf Eichmann. And last year, Nass pressured UW-Madison to fire Kevin Barrett, an instructor on Islam who believes the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. Nass even went on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show to vent his outrage over Barrett.
When the university refused to purge Barrett, Nass responded by threatening to cut its budget. And this year, he came up with a slew of targeted budget cuts. These include eliminating funding for the Havens Center - which sponsored a talk by Barrett - and the UW's School for Workers, which educates union activists. (The Assembly version of the budget would also cut all state support to the UW Law School, end the Wisconsin GI bill that pays the tuition of state veterans and mostly eliminate state spending on Wisconsin Public Radio and Public Television, affiliated with the UW-Extension.)
Nass defends his cuts as "common sense," not punitive: "We don't have money for everything. The UW is going to have to set priorities, whether they like it or not."
He says his complaints about Churchill were "vindicated" when the University of Colorado fired him this summer for misconduct, including plagiarism. And he feels conservatives are not equally represented on campuses. When Ward Connerly, an African American activist who opposes affirmative action, came to UW-Madison in 1998, he was booed so roundly that he cut his remarks short and walked off the stage.
"Where is the balance?" demands Nass.
David Giroux, spokesman for the UW System, says the university is open to both conservative and liberal ideas. "For every example of the UW being 'too liberal,' I could go to the school of business and find classes that represent the capitalistic viewpoint - something that someone who is not a free-market Republican might find objectionable."
Do students need protection?
Among the initiatives Nass is most keen on pushing is the creation of a Student Bill of Rights, which would establish a governing board to handle student complaints about professors. Once again, though, it's Mikalsen who explains the rationale: "There's no complaint process now, if the faculty go on a political rant."
Sara Mikolajczak, chair of the UW-Madison College Republicans, says she got an F on a project for a Latin American studies class last semester in which she criticized Che Guevara, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"I think it's completely ridiculous that we can't voice our opinion, when the UW is supposed to be about doing just that," she says. She complained to her professor and got her grade changed to a C. "I still think I deserved a better grade, but a C is better than an F."
Still, Mikolajczak is not sure the UW needs a Student Bill of Rights. She notes that she was able to get her grade changed easily. And while conservative students may not always feel free to speak out, she thinks it's unusual for their politics to affect their grades: "I don't think it happens every day."
Professor Donald Downs, a UW-Madison expert on free speech, was invited by David Horowitz to Washington, D.C., a couple years ago for the unveiling of model legislation for a Student Bill of Rights. Horowitz wanted Downs to support the idea.
"I wouldn't do it," says Downs. "It encourages students to snitch on their teachers."
Downs says he'd rather have students defend their ideas: "Stand up for yourself. That is one step in learning how to be an adult."
The university, says Downs, has always been subject to political pressure, especially from the Legislature. But he thinks Nass is taking things a bit too far.
"Critics of the university say we have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers," says Downs. "There's something to that. But on the other hand, a great university is a place where you're supposed to pursue truth where you see it. We're really doing our fiduciary duty when we are pushing the envelope and coming up with arguments that may upset people."
By the numbers
Democrats and Republicans are so far apart that the state budget is now three months late. Wisconsin is the only state with a July 1 deadline that has not passed a budget for next year.
One major point of contention is funding for the UW. Assembly Republicans want to increase state spending to the UW by just $62 million over the next two years. That's $124 million less than what the Senate Democrats want to provide. The System says the Assembly version would require $120 million in cuts to maintain current programs.
Among the cuts proposed by Republicans: 17 administrative positions (which Nass considers "duplicative"); 25% of the UW's communications and marketing staff; and $4 million from a special fund to retain "high-demand" faculty. In the capital budget, the Assembly has also eliminated funding for new student dormitories and student unions.
Giroux notes that the state's share of the university's $4.3 billion annual budget has declined over the past 10 years, from 34% to 24%. The state gives about $1 billion to the university system each year.
"We have a public university that receives less than one-quarter of its funding from the [state]," says Giroux. "Partisan politics aside, I think there is a serious question that needs to be answered about whether or not the state is prepared to sustain its public university."
Mikalsen says the UW is deliberately trying to make the state look bad by using the wrong budget figures. He says the state has only committed to paying for undergraduate education - not for things like dorms, student health centers or student unions.
"If they didn't run a student health center, there would still be a university," he says. "We've always tried to look only at instructional costs."
The UW gets about half its budget from state aids and from tuition. The rest comes from federal research grants, dorm fees and other sources that the state has no control over, says Mikalsen. According to his calculations - using only the money that the UW gets from the state and from tuition - the state actually chips in about 53% of the university's undergraduate costs.
"If you compare the state contribution to the budget overall, yeah, it's going to look like we're horrible," he says. "It's not fair to use that to say we're not keeping up with our fair share."
Giroux notes that even by Mikalsen's measure, state support has been declining. Ten years ago, the tuition paid by students covered just 34% of their instructional costs, while the state picked up the rest. Today, the share of instructional costs paid by students through tuition has risen to 55%.
"The state's interest in undergraduate education has been slipping," says Giroux, adding the UW has been forced to raise tuition to cover budget cuts. He adds that one reason legislators might not realize how devastating the cuts are is because the UW has done so well at managing reductions in the past.
"We're victims of our own success," he says. "We've sustained severe cuts to our budget, while increasing enrollment. We've managed the cuts they gave us quite well, without closing down campuses."
But now Giroux says the state is no longer trimming fat, but cutting into bone. "We have world-class researchers who are standing at the copier, making handouts for class," he says. "In a better world, they'd be off meeting with students or doing research. Not doing the work support staff used to do."
And he agrees the UW has done a poor job of polishing its image. "We're good researchers, good instructors. We're not the best in marketing," he says. "We're not Apple. We don't pack everything into a slick package."
Rep. Pocan says the UW doesn't have an army of lobbyists swarming the Capitol - to its detriment. "There should be nothing else that compares to the UW when it comes to political clout," he says, noting that Planned Parenthood only has a few staffers but "does head and shoulders above the UW in its lobbying effort."
In all the bickering back and forth, Steve Nass sometimes loses sight of the bigger picture. Recently, for instance, he asked the state attorney general to look into whether the UW illegally gave the media the names of students who haven't gotten financial aid because of the budget impasse.
All the students quoted in media articles agreed to be interviewed. But Mikalsen says federal law requires the university to get permission from the students and their parents in writing. "We know they didn't do it," he says.
Nass insists he's not ignoring the larger issue - students not getting financial aid - to score points on a technicality. "It's the law," he says. "If we allow the university to pick and choose which laws to obey, we are in for a boatload of trouble."
Still, Nass seems less troubled about the low number of Wisconsin students who will be prepared to attend college. Mikalsen, citing discussions within an educational consortium, says only about a third of the state's high school students will have the grades and credentials to be accepted by a university - any university.
Nass refuses to say whether one-third is an acceptable number. "I don't know if there is a magical number," he says. "It depends on how many want to go."
According to Giroux, the UW is putting its resources into pre-college programs, including one by the American Council on Education that reaches out to middle-schoolers. The program educates kids on what kind of classes they'll need in high school to attend college, what kind of grades they'll need, and what financial aid is available to them.
"These are very expensive programs to run," says Giroux. "We spend a lot of money on those kids to get them to be successful."
Nass says it's not his job to make sure kids are ready for college. He wants to avoid the "turf battle" between the state Department of Instruction and the UW. "K-12 needs to take care of K-12."
And anyway, says Mikalsen, "There are a lot of people who don't believe in a college education."
Nass would rather focus on bringing accountability back to the UW. And he believes the public supports his proposed budget cuts.
"For me to ignore any agency that I believe is bloated - it's my responsibility to flag that," he says. "At some point, the taxpayers want me to step in."
Eventually, he believes, the university will get with the program: "They are aware that they can't just ignore the Legislature anymore."