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GOP holdover on UW board says he’s not stepping down at term’s end

Robert Atwell says he's been advised he can stay on the Board of Regents until the Senate confirms his successor

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 Republican appointee to the Universities of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents says he’ll continue to serve on the board, even though his term officially expired at the start of May.

In 2017, Republican Gov. Scott Walker first appointed Robert “Bob” Atwell, the founder of Nicolet Bankshares, to a seven-year term on the board overseeing Wisconsin’s public university system.

But in an email this week, Atwell wrote that, acting on the advice of Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, he intends to stay on the board indefinitely.

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WisPolitics first reported on the existence of the email sent from Atwell to UW leaders, including UW System President Jay Rothman.

“Speaker Vos brought to my attention that the statute directs that, in the absence of a resignation regents remain in office until their successor is appointed and confirmed,” Atwell wrote using his business email for Nicolet Bank. “Jay has recently confirmed this understanding. In light of that, I will remain on the Board until I resign or my successor is seated. I hope that my temporary continuation as a regent can support good communication between the Legislative Council and the BOR.”

A successor to Atwell would need to be appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and confirmed by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Senate.

That could allow GOP lawmakers to hold up the process of an Evers appointee taking power by delaying a vote on confirmation.

As of Friday, Evers had yet to announce a nominee to replace Atwell. Wisconsin’s Legislature adjourned earlier this spring and is not scheduled to be back in session until January 2025.

Atwell’s decision relies on a 2022 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, which found appointees could stay in power even after their terms expire if Wisconsin’s Senate had not yet confirmed a successor.

That 4-3 decision came from what was then a conservative majority on the state’s highest court. The case made it to the court after Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul sued over Fred Prehn’s refusal to step down from the state’s Natural Resources Board.

Prehn, a Walker appointee, stayed on the board for more than a year after his term expired, though he eventually resigned just before Evers started his second term as governor.

Earlier this spring, Republican state senators voted to fire a slate of Evers appointees, including UW Regents John Miller and Dana Wachs.

Wachs and Miller had previously voted against a deal that froze university positions dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion in exchange for freeing up money that had previously been designated for employee pay raises and building projects.

That action was the first time Wisconsin lawmakers had rejected regent appointments in more than three decades.