University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross announced Friday his intention to retire from his position overseeing the state’s public universities and colleges.
Cross, 71, will continue as president until the UW System Board of Regents identifies his successor, according to a System announcement.
Named president in 2014, he said the job was “the most rewarding work” in his life, which includes chapters as a Michigan farm boy, Vietnam veteran, small-business owner and engineer. Altogether, he spent more than four decades in higher education, an industry that has seen declining public support, particularly among conservatives.
Cross was not available for an interview Friday.
Cross’ tenure came during a time of tumult for the state’s public universities.
He arrived in the wake of criticism from Republican state legislators that campuses quietly amassed millions in reserve funds while raising student tuition. The Legislature then imposed a resident undergraduate tuition freeze that is in its seventh year.
Vowing to mend relations at the Capitol, Cross spent his first hour on the job as the System’s seventh president calling 30 lawmakers.
He asked in his first budget for a $95 million increase in funding. He received a $250 million cut.
Legislators also stripped tenure protections from state law, prompting institutions across the country to poach some faculty members away from Wisconsin.
As the face of all 26 UW campuses, Cross weathered criticism from faculty in all corners of the state who say he failed to push back against politicians and explain how devastating the GOP’s changes would be to campuses. They saw his actions as selling out to the Republican-controlled state government, which ended in January after the election of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
In 2016, several campuses declared they had “no confidence” in Cross and the UW System Board of Regents, almost all of whom were appointees of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“I will give credit where credit’s due: I think Cross has done a better job of advocating for funding since the no-confidence votes,” said UW-Green Bay professor Jon Shelton, who serves as vice president of higher education for AFT-Wisconsin, which represents unionized faculty and staff at UW campuses and organized the series of no-confidence votes.
In the most recent budget biennium, the System received what amounted to less than an inflationary increase for its operating budget. Cross said at the time he felt he had been “kicked in the shins.” But he also successfully pushed for nearly $1 billion in upgrades and renovations at campus buildings, many of which have gone without repairs for years.
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Several Republican lawmakers on Friday issued statements of support for Cross. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called his leadership “outstanding.”
Evers thanked Cross for his leadership and service in a statement, saying the UW has been in “good hands under his leadership.”
“Ray saw higher education not just as a means of workforce development, but as an opportunity for public service and public good in a state that prides itself on the Wisconsin Idea,” Evers said. “I am hopeful that the Board of Regents will select a new System president who will continue advocating for and investing in our kids, educators, higher education, and the Wisconsin Idea.”
The Wisconsin Idea is the university’s philosophy that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.
Merger, enrollment challenges
Cross’ biggest legacy, Shelton said, will be the merging of the System’s 13 two-year campuses with some of its four-year institutions, the biggest shift since the System’s inception by the Legislature in 1971.
The plan unfolded quickly with little involvement or feedback solicited from the campuses, which has led to challenges that he said faculty and staff could have helped the System work through better.
Cross, who previously served as chancellor of the UW Colleges, saw the merger as a proactive response to the state’s demographic challenges and points to how quickly the System secured accreditation of the changes. Higher education leaders across the country call to ask him how it was done, he has said on multiple occasions.
With fewer in-state high school students for institutions to recruit, the System’s most recent enrollment figures — a little over 167,000 students this fall — show the two-year campuses collectively had a quarter fewer students this year compared with last.
One highlight of Cross’ career: The System saw a record 36,825 graduates in 2017-18, including a record 4,919 students of color.
He also oversaw the passing of a policy requiring campuses to document sexual harassment allegations and investigations in personnel files and share the information with System institutions and Wisconsin state agencies during the hiring process.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement that she will miss Cross’s wisdom, humor and dedication.
“Ray stabilized the UW System at a time of legislative skepticism and financial challenges, and he restored transparency and credibility at the Capitol and among the public,” Board of Regents President Drew Petersen said in a statement.
“Ray saw higher education not just as a means of workforce development, but as an opportunity for public service and public good in a state that prides itself on the Wisconsin Idea.” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers