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UW finalists make last pitch to faculty

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND
  • Associated Press
  • January 6, 2014 - 6:15 PM

MADISON, Wis. — The finalists vying to become the University of Wisconsin System's next president made their final hiring pitches to faculty Monday, pledging to try to repair the system's tattered relationship with Republican lawmakers who hold the system's state purse-strings.

Tensions have run high for years between the GOP and the system. Things boiled over last spring when word broke that campuses had quietly amassed huge funding reserves while raising tuition year after year. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, the president of the state Senate, told the system's then-president, Kevin Reilly, he was disgusted with the system, and the budget that Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed in June froze tuition across the system. Reilly announced a month later he would resign at the end of the year and officially stepped down last week.

The Board of Regents is expected to choose Reilly's successor on Thursday from among three finalists — UW-Extension and UW Colleges Chancellor Ray Cross; Peter Garland, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education vice chancellor; and Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Robert King. All three appeared Monday via video links with campuses around the state for one-hour individual question-and-answer sessions.

King went first, saying he believes respect for higher education has eroded across the country in the wake of a number of scandals, including the Penn State child sex abuse case. Legislatures have responded by cutting funding, he said.

He said rebuilding relationships with lawmakers would be his top priority. He promised his experience as a legislator in New York state in the late 1980s and as then-Gov. George Pataki's state budget director from 1998 and 1999 would give him credibility with Wisconsin lawmakers.

"It starts with sitting down with legislators. I'm going to get to know them," he said. "I was a legislator. I know how they think."

Cross said the system must re-establish credibility on every level of government. He promised to hold local listening sessions to see what people want from the system, meet personally with legislators and streamline the system's financial reports to make them more readable, all within his first 100 days. He said he wants to get back to provisions Walker included in his executive budget before the reserve story broke that would have lifted a cap on tuition and left it up to the Board of Regents to set student prices.

"They have to have confidence in us if they're going to give us more money," Cross said. "This openness and honesty is critically important. We need to be overtly, overtly transparent."

Garland said he believed all system officials, including the president and the regents, need open lines of communication with lawmakers. He said his first priority would be to learn about the system and individual campuses' cultures so he could speak knowledgeably with the Legislature and governor.

"It will take time," Garland said. "All key leaders in the system need to be engaged in the conversation."

Cross and Garland also fielded questions about rising tuition costs. Cross acknowledged student debt is soaring and hurting the economy, saying graduates grappling with tens of thousands of dollars in debt can't buy cars or homes. He said he would fight for a "rational tuition policy" and use his position as president to fight for more efficiently distributed state and federal aid.

Garland acknowledged he didn't have an answer, calling tuition and debt "big questions." He said high-quality degrees cost money but families and students in Pennsylvania "are getting to the edge."

"We're continuing to search for the balance point," he said. "If I had the answer, I'd be other places today than here."

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