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New UW President Cut His Teeth on Madison Proposal
Cross jumped into the fray early in opposing a new public authority.
Ray Cross, who will ascend to the post of UW System president in February, was a newcomer to Wisconsin when he arrived here in 2011 to head up the UW Colleges, which share an administration with the UW-Extension, the network of county-level offices that provide agricultural and other community programs. He struck many people in the state as hard-working, and he developed a reputation for being hands-on.

An early moment for allying with state lawmakers came in opposing the plan backed by Gov. Scott Walker and Biddy Martin, then chancellor at UW-Madison, to spawn off the university as a public authority. The proposal, which arose later in 2011, wasn't popular with outstate legislators for much the same reason it wasn't popular with Cross: The UW is a sprawling public university system, and many students enroll in its two-years schools, or smaller four-year campuses, with the hope of later transferring to the flagship, UW-Madison. There just wasn't enough in the plan for most of the schools in the system, and an alternative proposed by the UW System, to hand over greater powers to all of the UW schools, instead of just piling them on at UW-Madison, was received coolly.

I interviewed Cross not long after he relocated from New York, where he had served as president of Morrisville State College for 13 years. By the time we talked, he had already brushed up on the old "Wisconsin Idea," that the UW System should play an active role in the state's public affairs, and said that the Extension was the entity that "lives it out" day after day.

Morrisville offers a number of bachelor and associate degree programs, many of which relate to agriculture or would be considered "technical" education, and Cross grew up on a farm in Michigan. In Wisconsin, he served as the system's point man for the Flexible Degree program aimed at making it easier for working adults to finish degrees, and the lobbying he did in support seems to have only strengthened his ties with lawmakers.

Nowadays, attitudes toward the system mean we won't be hearing as many calls for "financial flexibility" from UW leaders as we did in 2011. Last spring, news broke that schools within the system had millions in cash reserves that were unassigned to needs (one state review put the figure at a total of $650 million), and this totally irked Republicans on the legislature's Joint Finance Committee.

As the defeat of Walker and Martin's public authority proposal showed, the UW, its stakeholders and the many interests awaiting in its court are numerous and unpredictable, and someone who can win over the representatives from Stevens Point, La Crosse, Ashland, Appleton, Kenosha, etc., is someone you want on your side.

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POSTED 1/12/2015