Matt Pommer: UW System hiring dabbles near state political waters

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, April 13, 2014

The UW System has moved closer to the edge of political waters by hiring a lobbyist with links to Gov. Scott Walker to be vice president for university relations.

Jim Villa had been chief of staff when Walker was Milwaukee County executive. Villa listed Walker as his first reference for the system administration job. He is expected to begin the university job early in May. A university screening committee forwarded Villa’s name along with those of four other finalists.

The appointment clearly pleases the Walker administration. The governor likes friendly faces in jobs that deal with the Legislature and the press. Shortly after he took office, the governor asked, and the Republican-controlled Legislature quickly approved, removing civil service status for people who lead legislative liaison and public information efforts at other state agencies. But that move didn’t affect Villa’s executive-level hiring.

The university vice presidency was created in 1984, but all previous holders of the job had experience in working with higher education.

Villa’s lack of university experience didn’t bother UW System President Ray Cross. Said Richard Wells, the UW-Oshkosh chancellor who chaired the search committee: “We were very impressed with Jim’s vision and his track record of success. I’m pleased that the UW System will have a new leader who can strengthen the university’s connections to the broader community and widen support for higher education in the state.”

Cross said Villa stood out for legislative ties and “good strategic communications.” Villa had served for five years as chief of staff for state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget writing Joint Finance Committee.

Villa’s name appeared repeatedly in the 28,000 pages of emails and other documents released in the criminal investigation of former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch. Villa was not charged in the investigation. The governor has repeatedly refused to discuss the emails, telling reporters they’re “old news.”

A representative for the governor said Walker is looking forward to working with the university staff. The university drew sharp legislative criticism after reports surfaced showing the system had accumulated surpluses in excess of $650 million.

Villa, 42, holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Marquette University. The expected size of his university salary and his close ties to the governor indicate Villa will be a powerful figure within the UW System.

Democrats criticized the university decision to hire Villa. A party spokesperson called Villa a “henchman” of the governor. Scott Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, labeled it “cronyism.”

But having a person with Villa’s ties could help the university in the next decade. In 2011, the Republican-controlled government drew legislative boundaries to assure the GOP would have legislative majorities through 2022.

President Cross suggested Villa’s role would be in providing “proactive” communications with legislators. That means Villa’s role will be to head off criticism from the state Capitol. Cross also defended Villa’s lack of previous experience in higher education. There are enough other people with that experience, he said.

Walker undoubtedly hopes Villa will be able to sooth any flaps involving the university as the governor bids for a second term and then seeks either the Republican nomination for president or vice president in 2016. Walker has been speaking to conservative groups across America to strengthen his national opportunities.

Being a high-profile university official doesn’t mean he’ll only deal with big issues. Constituents may ask legislators to look into why their children didn’t get admitted to particular campuses or some of the university’s highly competitive educational programs. Legislators like to please their friends, and enlisting Villa’s help to get explanations could fulfill that role, especially for Republicans.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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