Talk about putting your best foot forward only to get it stomped on.
Last week, in response to an open records request from this newspaper, the UW System released internal emails that showed System President Ray Cross throwing UW-Eau Claire chancellor James Schmidt under the bus for sending him “candid” ideas for how to cope with Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to cut $300 million from the System’s state aid in exchange for giving the System more autonomy.
“Incredible logic!!” Cross writes in an email forwarding Schmidt’s ideas to two other System administrators. “I find this most troubling!!! I thought Jim was a bit more thoughtful than this.”
As a mere civilian, I thought Schmidt’s ideas had merit. And after spending 25 minutes talking to him on the phone, I think the System would do well to hire more people like him.
Schmidt laid out 10 suggestions in all, with five more concerning initiatives specific to his campus.
They range from seeking different employee health care insurers, to creating links between four-year campuses and their nearby two-year campuses, to cutting down on administrative overhead, to shrinking and decentralizing System administration.
Cross, who declined my interview request, was particularly irked by what he called Schmidt’s proposed “elimination of the System” and his call for even greater autonomy for System campuses.
Schmidt didn’t back down from the value of his ideas or from the importance of coming up with them, although he acknowledged that on second look, some, like combining administrative functions at four-year campuses and their nearby two-year feeder schools, might not provide as much savings as he initially thought.
At a Jan. 5 meeting, Cross laid out the coming budget cuts and asked those in attendance to “think out of the box,” Schmidt said, adding Cross told administrators “we’re going to have to do some things differently.”
So Schmidt said he went back to Eau Claire and he and his staff brainstormed the list he emailed Cross the next day.
Schmidt told me he is a “big believer of getting as many ideas on the table as possible” and “I come at things from a student advocate point of view.”
To that end, Schmidt said he’s asked UW-Eau Claire division heads to propose 10, 15 and 20 percent cuts. It’s not his intention to make across-the-board cuts, but he wants to get a better idea of what potential cuts could look like.
He said he’s created four “rapid-action task forces” to study possible efficiencies in student services, administration, curriculum and faculty workload.
They are expected to report back to him in a month, he said, and he’s made it clear that if an administrative process doesn’t have some relation to advancing the needs of students, he’s willing to change or eliminate it.
Meanwhile, back in Madison, System faculty, staff and students held a rally on Saturday to oppose what would amount to a 2.5 percent cut to the System’s $6 billion annual budget.
Also among their concerns were safeguarding faculty power through UW’s “shared governance” model, and maintaining tenure — an employment perk specific to educators that makes it nearly impossible to fire them.
Not insignificantly, Saturday was the four-year anniversary of the first protest at the state Capitol against Walker’s Act 10, which stripped most public sector union workers of most of their union rights.
Schmidt doesn’t have a problem with protesters. As a college student in Minnesota, he was among those at the state Capitol protesting higher ed cuts in 1983. He’s no fan of Walker’s proposed cut and made clear in his email to Cross that he and his team “unreservedly support the role of shared governance and tenure at UW-Eau Claire and throughout the UW System.”
(In our interview, he also had nothing but kind words for Cross.)
But he’s not into spending lots of time moping over Walker’s politically driven budget proposal.
Budget cuts mean “we need to reinvent at every level to figure out how we can protect the student experience,” he said.
I asked System spokesman Alex Hummel whether any of the other chancellors or System leaders at Cross’ Jan. 5 powwow had come back with proposals that were as detailed and wide-ranging as Schmidt’s.
He responded: “In the next few weeks, the budget proposal’s impact is going to come in clearer focus, as leaders at each institution hone and share their plans to meet their share of the cut.
“That’s where everybody’s focus has been and remains right now,” he said. “I have not heard, or read, any other broad proposals from chancellors. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open.”
It would be understandable if news of Cross’ catty reaction to Schmidt’s counsel makes high-ranking System officials less likely to share “candid” views with their boss.
That would be too bad, but somehow, I don’t think it would apply to Schmidt.