As University of Wisconsin System Regents meet to discuss the merger of the System's two- and four-year campuses, President Ray Cross faces new push-back from faculty for his handling of the merger — and what critics call his disdain for input from faculty, staff and students.
UW Regents will meet Thursday and Friday at UW-Madison. Their agenda includes an update on the merger, which is making the two-year UW Colleges into branch campuses of nearby four-year universities, starting this fall.
As colleges and universities race to meet a July 1 deadline to complete the merger, faculty is taking an increasingly dim view of the System's leadership, said Mark Karau, a UW-Sheboygan history professor.
"There is not a lot of confidence in President Cross right now," said Karau, who is president of the UW Colleges chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
The association's UW-Madison chapter sent Cross an open letter this week declaring its lack of confidence in him.
Citing a recent Wisconsin Public Radio report based on Cross' emails, the letter tells Cross "your attitude and words have done further damage to an already damaged relationship."
The WPR report last week cited emails to and from Cross, obtained through a public records request. The emails show Cross, in reference to the merger, panning so-called "shared governance" groups. The term refers to the UW System's longstanding model of making decisions in consultation with faculty, staff and students.
"Getting hammered by the 'shared governance' leaders because they weren't involved in the process; however, had they been involved we wouldn't be doing anything!!" Cross wrote Regent Gerald Whitburn in one of the emails.
Another email from UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to Cross describes the merger as an "open secret" at the state Capitol in October, before the plan was made public. UW Regents approved the merger plan in November.
UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said in a statement that "we value the input of our faculty, staff and students, and President Cross has ensured they have a continued voice in the process."
Marquis noted, as Cross and merger proponents have said previously, that declining enrollment at UW Colleges and a declining birth rate throughout the state have made the merger a necessity. They have said it will ensure that the predominantly rural communities served by the colleges maintain access to higher education.
"The status quo is not sustainable," Marquis said.
Cross has acknowledged the merger will result in UW job losses "over time" as campuses consolidate administration and other services. He has not said how many positions would be cut.
Karau said the substance of the merger is not what has angered most faculty members. He said "everybody understands the fundamental realities" of the System's declining enrollment.
The problem, Karau said, was "the way in which President Cross chose to ram this thing through."
"He did not consult with the stakeholders," Karau said.
Blank, asked about the secrecy surrounding the merger at a UW-Madison Faculty Senate meeting Monday, said it "was a Board of Regents action."
"It was, under those circumstances, not mine to announce or to discuss," Blank said.
Blank said UW-Madison is seeking to work with faculty, staff and student groups in its part of the merger, which brings the functions of UW-Extension under Madison and central System administration.
This isn't the first time UW faculty have clashed sharply with Cross.
Steven Smith, Secretary of the Faculty at UW-Madison, noted its Faculty Senate cast a vote of no-confidence in Cross in 2016, a step later replicated by similar groups at other UW campuses. Concerns then centered on Cross' response to UW budget cuts enacted by Republican legislators and Gov. Scott Walker, and to changes to tenure policies that weakened faculty protections.
Cross' latest emails "suggest that he does not seem to care about regaining the faculty's trust," Smith said.
"I do not know how broadly the views I have heard are representative, but they unanimously see his remarks as reflective of ineffective leadership," Smith said.