Ray Cross

University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross speaks in April during a campus forum at UW-Stout.

Investing in the University of Wisconsin System is an investment in the state’s human capital, President Ray Cross said during a visit Monday with the La Crosse Tribune’s editorial board.

Cross has been advocating for the UW System and an additional $42.5 million in the next budget cycle after UW campuses absorbed a cut of $250 million last year. The funding is part of the system’s 2020FWD Strategic Framework, which was built on feedback Cross and system leaders received during statewide listening sessions and public comment last year.

The additional funding would be be focused on four keys areas in the framework: the education pipeline, university experience, connections with communities and operations. Efforts include expanding credit options for high school students, improving curricula and producing more graduates while streamlining non-instructional costs.

In recent years, more jobs have been lost than created that require a high school diploma, and job creation for positions requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher has outpaced the growth of the trades and two-year degrees, according to data Cross shared from Georgetown University. Investment in the UW System has one of the best returns in the state, with Cross saying that $10 is created for every dollar spent.

“Part of our job is explaining how critical this is to our economy,” he said. “And you can’t ignore the data.”

Cross shared a few examples of this impact, such as the more than 300 UW-related startup companies in the state, many of which survive past the five-year mark. UW research is also a big economic booster, with breakthroughs in medicine and science, such as new techniques for skin grafts or using stem cells not taken from fetal tissue in medical applications.

The system does have opportunities to be streamlined, he said, and work more effectively, such as obtaining more power to oversee and manage infrastructure projects. Closer collaboration with business is one of Cross’ big goals, and he said he believed students should have some sort of workforce experience such as an internship or a job shadow before they graduate.

During his remarks, Cross addressed U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s recent interview with WisPolitics in which the Wisconsin Republican claimed several tenured professors could be replaced with technology, such as online lectures or videos, with the need for only one professor to proctor examinations.

“This reveals his lack of understanding about learning,” Cross said. “A dialogue must occur (between the professor and the pupil). It is hard to make that efficient.”

Politicians and pundits have also criticized UW campuses about incidents such as the UW-Madison class on racial bias that required the reading of an essay about gay sex, and at UW-L, where a residence hall director sent an email about the female orgasm that offended some.

Some of these complaints are petty, he said, or taken out of context. The essay in question shone a light on the discrimination some races face in the gay community, which Cross said is touted for being inclusive and tolerant. Other incidents have merit, he acknowledged, but take the focus off the vast majority of beneficial things the university does.

“It’s like focusing on the ant when the elephant is around,” he said.

Since Cross held his listening session tour, attitudes have been changing at the state Capitol. Cross said he was pleased that Gov. Scott Walker has moved higher education near the top of his priority list, and the system’s Board of Regents, many of whom were Walker appointees, supported the $ 42.5 million budget request at their meeting Thursday.

“I’m always cautiously optimistic,” Cross said. “But I think we are in the sweet spot with our request.”

Investment in the UW System has one of the best returns in the state, with (UW President Ray) Cross saying that $10 is created
for every dollar spent.

Nathan Hansen has been the Education Reporter for the Tribune since 2014. Prior to that, he covered education, agriculture and business topics for the Winona Daily News. He is always on the lookout for news tips and can be contacted at 608-791-8234.

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