Laslo Boyd: Larry Hogan and Scott Walker

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By: Laslo Boyd

Wisconsin Governor and 2016 Presidential Candidate Scott Walker has attracted national attention for his highly critical stance towards the University of Wisconsin.   A public institution that has been widely regarded for decades as a national model is being used by Walker as a punching bag to appeal to anti-intellectuals, small government advocates, and the “slash the state budget regardless of the consequences” crowd.

The leading edge of his plan is a proposed $300 million cut to the university’s budget.  Even in an era in which the state share of public universities budgets has been declining everywhere, this meat cleaver approach still stands out.   Walker’s hostility and, even more significant, lack of understanding of the importance of higher education was also demonstrated by an initial effort to delete from the University’s mission statement the words “search for truth” and substitute “meeting the state’s workforce needs.”

Walker backed away from the mission change after a furious backlash, asserting that it had been a “drafting error.”  In defending the 13% cut in the budget, the Governor played to popular prejudice, arguing that professors should work harder.

A “Forbes” contributor described his plan as “epically stupid,” one of the mildest observations made to date.   The significance of Walker’s attack has been somewhat clouded by stories which point out that he failed to get a college degree, dropping out of Marquette to take a job.  Whether of not that fact has contributed to Walker’s distain for higher education, the real losers will be the citizens of Wisconsin if he is allowed to turn what was once a shinning example of an exemplary public university into a second rate one.

Maryland’s still relatively new governor, Larry Hogan, gives every impression at this point of following a different path.  He has avoided the approach of his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, whose slashing of the state public higher education budget during his four years in office led to a 40% increase in tuition.   That large increase became a potent political issue and a factor that contributed to Ehrlich’s failed bid for re-election.

The final terms of the Maryland state budget are far from settled, but early indications are that Hogan will try to provide enough support to be able to minimize tuition increases.  As a person elected with the explicit goal of improving Maryland’s business climate, he knows that one of the state’s leading assets in terms of economic development is its strong universities.  Taking the Walker Approach would mean competing with Mississippi and Alabama, not with Japan and China.

Another indicator of Hogan’s attitude showed up in last week’s Green Bag appointments.   His nominees for the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland are highly revealing.  First, it is clear that a position on the Board of Regents is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious and desirable chits available to the governor.   His choices for that board are very close to Hogan and probably could have gotten any position in which they showed interest.

Jim Brady, chair of Hogan’s transition team, former Secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development and highly placed insider, was named to one of the slots.  A second goes to Bobby Neall, the new governor’s unofficial budget guru, former State Senator, and former Anne Arundel County Executive.  A third nominee is Bob Pevenstein, who served previously on the Board of Regents, after having been appointed by Bob Ehrlich.  He has had a long and highly successful business career and is seen as a Hogan confidant.

These appointments, certain to be confirmed by the State Senate, are a clear indication that the Governor cares about the success of the state public universities and wants to have his people involved in shaping its direction.  Rather than signaling an intent to slash budgets or to reorient the mission of the state’s public universities, these early steps suggest a commitment to building on the strengths that already exist.

However, that doesn’t mean that changes won’t be coming.  The three new Regents, and several more to come by July, will push the universities to increase their ability to contribute to the state’s economy, to find efficiencies in operations, and to demonstrate innovation in both academic programs and modes of delivery.

One example comes out of the work of the Augustine Commission, which was set up by the General Assembly’s two presiding officers to examine ways to improve the state’s business climate.  The legislature is likely to establish a work group to make specific proposals on how to facilitate technology transfer from university research to economic enterprises. 

This is an area in which the Governor and the General Assembly seem to be in sync.  Moreover, Norm Augustine, who chaired the initial effort, is also a member of the Board of Regents.

Reconciling these multiple objectives will be the immediate challenge for the System’s new Chancellor, Bob Caret.  While he doesn’t officially start until July, you can be certain that Caret will have been in conversation with all the key players, including his new bosses, well before then. 

Governor Hogan seems off to a good start with respect to one of his key resources for achieving economic growth.  Now he just needs to make sure he doesn’t pay any attention to Scott Walker and others of his view when he attends meetings of the Republican Governors Association.
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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.