Ray Cross

UW System President Ray Cross

University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross has been working hard for two years to repair a long-frayed relationship between his institution and the Republicans who run state government.

Faculty resolutions expressing “no confidence” in his leadership won’t help him convince state leaders to commit greater support for higher education in the next state budget.

The resolutions are a mistake, and they exaggerate changes to job security for the vast majority of professors across the state.

UW-Madison professors targeted Cross with a resolution this month, and several other campuses followed suit. So far, faculty at five of the state’s 13 public universities have adopted no-confidence measures, though UW-Eau Claire wisely refused to rush a vote last week.

Professors, some of whom bring millions of dollars in research grants to campus, are understandably upset about a $250 million state cut to UW System in the current state budget. So is a wide swath of the public, according to polling.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature forbid universities from raising tuition to offset the lost revenue. So some campuses are laying off staff, consolidating administrations, reducing advising services, and limiting course offerings.

That won’t help Wisconsin produce more educated workers and entrepreneurs to compete in the global economy.

But the cut could have been worse. Walker originally proposed a $300 million reduction, which Cross and others lobbied to lower.

Moreover, it wasn’t Cross’ fault lawmakers were upset with UW System. Their ire predated his presidency, peaking three years ago when a group of accountants in the Legislature highlighted more than $600 million in university reserves.

Many Republicans were outraged the university had been raising tuition while quietly setting aside money.

But a lot of the reserves, spread across many accounts and campuses, were destined for technology purchases, financial aid and other investments in student programs and services. UW’s mistake wasn’t having healthy reserves to fall back on. It was failing to be clear about how much it had and what the money was for.

That’s when Cross was thrust into the president’s job, as his predecessor was pressured to leave.

UW’s reserves helped cushion the $250 million cut. Then came limits on faculty tenure, allowing professors to be laid off if their academic programs are discontinued. Cross understandably favors some flexibility on tenure if staff are no longer needed in an area of study that is going away.

Yet Cross has forcefully defended free speech, academic freedom and the right to pursue truth on campus. Walker quickly dropped his inexplicable attempt to nix the “search for truth” from UW System’s mission statement last year. And Cross defended professors — “I don’t like to see faculty vilified” — after the governor suggested instructors should increase their workload.

Tenure has been loosened, yet it remains similar to peer universities. And UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank just said she won’t lay off any tenured professors.

So the best strategy for a better state budget is to tout UW System’s contribution to Wisconsin’s economy, innovation and jobs. That’s what Cross is doing in an effective way.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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