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UW Board of Regents

Democrats criticized the UW System Board of Regents on Wednesday for not hearing presentations from campus chancellors about the impact of state budget cuts.

Concerned about a “two-hour drumbeat” from chancellors over $250 million in budget cuts, University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross scrapped a plan for campus leaders to tell Regents this week about the cuts’ impacts, Cross said.

Cross also acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that he made the decision after consulting with some Regents and considering, among other factors, the System’s next two-year budget.

The Wisconsin State Journal first reported on the decision Monday. At that time, a System spokesman said the presentation to the Regents was canceled so that chancellors could share the budget cut information in their local communities.

Records obtained Wednesday by the State Journal under the state’s open records law show that Cross planned to have each of the UW System’s chancellors give a five-minute presentation on the impact of the $250 million cut from higher education funding in the 2015-17 state budget when the Board of Regents meets Thursday and Friday at UW-Green Bay.

But last Friday, after consulting with the board’s leaders and hearing many of the presentations at a “dry run” rehearsal, Cross canceled the presentations.

He said in the interview the talks were often repetitive and went over their allotted time, and that he was concerned the “two-hour drumbeat” of budget cut presentations could make it more difficult for people to appreciate their local impacts.

Cross also acknowledged concern that the public could think UW officials were exaggerating the budget cuts’ effects.

“We’re always thinking about the next budget,” Cross said. “A lot of decisions are made with that thought as a backdrop.”

Democrats in the Legislature criticized the decision not to hear presentations, calling it an attempt to sweep bad news about the budget cuts under the rug. “How these dramatic cuts to the UW System will be implemented on a campus-by-campus basis is something Wisconsinites are deeply concerned about,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “Why would the Regents eliminate an opportunity to educate themselves — and the public — on how the cuts will be carried out?”

Cross denied he was trying to downplay the impact of the cuts, saying UW officials are “trying to be open and honest” about how they are affecting universities.

“There was always concern — is this the right way to do this?” Cross said of the presentations to the Regents. “What’s the right way to explain the cuts without being overly dramatic … and yet at the same time to explain the impact?”

In a letter to the Regents and Cross, Democratic members of the Joint Finance Committee asked UW officials to tell them how they would “facilitate an adequate public discussion on the implementation of the cuts.” They also asked for detailed plans describing how each campus is absorbing reduced state higher education funding.

At UW-Madison and other campuses, administrators have closed hundreds of vacant positions, laid off staff, reduced services and cut back on community programs in response to the cuts.

Instead of presenting to the Regents, UW officials plan to release summaries of the budget cuts’ impacts later this week, and Cross has encouraged chancellors to talk about their effects more locally, with the communities surrounding their institutions.

Cross originally told chancellors last week to prepare a one-page summary and five-minute presentation on how their institutions were dealing with the cuts, according to an email obtained by the State Journal. They were to rehearse the presentations at a meeting Friday morning between Cross and the chancellors.

Cross encouraged the chancellors to describe “the impact the reductions will have on students, personnel, physical plant operations, the community and other key areas,” according to the email he sent to UW System chancellors.

“It should be factual, not whiny,” Cross wrote in his message.

Cross insisted on this point — he said in the interview he brought a red button to the meeting to be used if he felt a chancellor was complaining too much in a presentation. When he pressed the button, a sound effect shouted, “No whining!”

Cross said he wanted to make sure the public did not believe UW officials were exaggerating the negative impacts of the cuts.

“We believe it’s important to do it carefully and accurately, without a lot of inflammatory hyperbole,” Cross said.

Asked whether he heard hyperbole during the presentations on Friday, he said, “You always hear some of that.”

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.