, ,

GOP holdover resigns from UW Board of Regents

Bob Atwell told UW leaders in May that he would stay on the board. He resigned Monday after Gov. Tony Evers appointed a replacement.

Golden light shines on Van Hise Hall
Van Hise Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Friday, April 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A conservative member of the Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents has resigned, just days after he vowed to stay on the board past his term to support “good communication” between the UW and the GOP-controlled state Legislature.

Bob Atwell, who co-founded Nicolet Bankshares in Green Bay and was appointed to the board by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2017, submitted his resignation Monday, more than a month after his term ended.

But in a May 20 email to Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman and Board of Regents President Karen Walsh, Atwell said he’d received advice from Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, that he could keep his seat until a successor was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“I hope that my temporary continuation as a regent can support good communication between the Legislative Council and the BOR,” Atwell said.

Atwell’s decision and the advice from Vos rely on a 2022 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, which found political appointees can stay in power even after their terms end so long as their successor hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.

Since that ruling, other boards have seen members appointed by Walker “holdover” their appointments by refusing to step down. Three members of the board overseeing the Wisconsin Technical College System stuck around for more than a year after their terms expired

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

On Friday, 30 days after Atwell’s term ended, Evers appointed commercial lawyer Tim Nixon to replace him along with two other new board members. The only regent appointed by Walker still on the board is dairy farmer Cris Petersen. Her appointment expires May 2025.

Atwell’s Monday email said he was “glad to see the Governor made his appointments and I am particularly glad that Tim Nixon is one of them.”

“I thought my reasons for staying on at least through the Milwaukee (Board of Regents) meeting (June 6-7) were clearly expressed, but I certainly left room for people to assume I was planning to reenact the scenario playing out on the DNR board,” Atwell said. “The 5 or 6 hate mail contacts I received were particularly unimpressive. I was clear that my primary focus is the forthcoming legislative council and more generally the UWs relationship with the legislature.”

In a Tuesday email to WPR, Atwell said not expressing a more definite plan in his original email “led some to the conclusion my intent was to squat in the seat and prevent confirmation of further Evers appointments.”

He said what may have added to the confusion is that his May 20 email “was released by someone” but a follow up was not. Atwell said, at the time, “I didn’t think I was writing a press release.”

Atwell sent WPR an email exchange he had with UW Board of Regents President Karen Walsh on May 22. Walsh told him his decision to stay on the board past the end of his term “is neither in the board’s best interest nor what the legislature intended when they set the the parameters for such board appointments” and encouraged him to reconsider.

“I realize that there is zero incentive for the legislature to fix that loophole, as it appears to be a useful lever to thwart a governor of the party opposite of legislative leadership,” Walsh said.

Atwell responded by thanking Walsh for her “candor” and said he had not decided if he would be “hanging out for one meeting or more.”

He told WPR Evers’ new appointments to the board affected his decision to resign, “as did the reality that I had become ‘the story.’”

In an interview with WPR, Walsh described Atwell as a “very passionate, engaged regent” and said the two have great respect for each other.

“I did disagree with his decision to stay in his seat,” said Walsh.

She said as of Saturday, Atwell wasn’t aware that a successor had been appointed.

“And the dedicated regent he was, he chose to do the right thing for the board, which was to leave his seat,” Walsh said. “You’re probably aware that two regents can’t sit in the same seat; there’s one seat per regent. So, the new regent would have had to sit somewhere in the audience.”

Atwell has long been critical of how the UW presents it’s financial position to the public. In his May email, he said he didn’t expect to see “the stunning absence of and frequent misuse of of data” but praised Walsh and Rothman for their work on developing a strategy for state universities moving forward.

In April, the results of a third-party analysis by higher education consulting firm Deloitte of budgets for universities in Superior, Oshkosh, Platteville, River Falls, Parkside, Whitewater and Green Bay showed declining enrollments and increased costs left them all with structural deficits. 

A 2023 UW analysis showed UW-Madison, UW-La Crosse and UW-Stout were the only campuses out of the 13 university system without projected deficits.

Walsh referred to Atwell as a “real fiscal hawk” who cares a great deal about what happens to the UW. She said the Deloitte analysis has proven useful and campuses have been grateful for the help. 

“And, you know, that’s the way you get pointed towards success to fix some of these things,” Walsh said.

Hats off to members like you! WPR Bucket Hat $20/month. Give Now.