Cross named University of Wisconsin president

  • Article by: SCOTT BAUER
  • Associated Press
  • January 9, 2014 - 6:45 PM

MADISON, Wis. — Ray Cross, the only internal candidate out of three finalists, was chosen Thursday to lead the University of Wisconsin System.

The university announced the Board of Regents' selection of Cross as the next president on Twitter. Cross, who has served as chancellor of UW-Extension and UW Colleges since 2011, takes over for Kevin Reilly, who stepped down last month.

"Our colleges, universities, and extension networks are the pride of Wisconsin and the envy of the nation," Cross said in a statement. "I'm eager to work with the regents and all my UW System colleagues to enhance these assets in ways that will benefit the entire state."

The appointment drew praise both from friends of the university and one of its loudest critics, Republican Rep. Steve Nass, chairman of the Assembly's Colleges and Universities Committee.

"I trust Ray Cross and believe he offers the right leadership at a critical time in the history of the UW System," Nass said in a statement. "While we won't agree on every issue, I know that he will be a man of his word and will always prioritize the best interests of Wisconsin families."

The UW's relationship with the Legislature has been strained in recent years and regents emphasized the need to find a new president who could help calm the waters while moving the university forward.

Tensions boiled over last spring when word broke campuses had been quietly building huge funding reserves while raising tuition year after year. The state budget that Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed in June froze tuition system-wide and rescinded an additional $181 million in funding. A month later, Reilly announced he would retire and he stepped down last month.

Nass said he was confident Cross would work well with lawmakers.

"His leadership style is based in action and not mere words," Nass said.

Walker released a statement congratulating Cross, saying he has enjoyed working with him as UW-Extension and UW Colleges chancellor.

"He has a unique combination of experience and drive for innovation," the governor said.

Cross said during a question-and-answer session with system faculty earlier this week that he'd hold local listening sessions to see what people want from the university system, meet personally with legislators and streamline the system's financial reports to make them more readable — all within his first 100 days.

He takes the post at a time when anger is growing over soaring student debt.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau report this spring, citing data from the UW System, found 67 percent of resident undergraduates who finished a bachelor's degree in 2006-07 graduated with some student loan debt, on average about $21,000. Five years later, 72 percent of students graduated with debt and the average amount had grown to $28,000.

Cross acknowledged the problem during his interview, saying it is hurting the economy because graduates 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.

Cross was one of the key architects of the system's new flex option degree program, which allows students to parlay life experience into college credits.

Cross beat out Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Vice Chancellor Peter Garland for the position after Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Robert King withdrew from consideration.

Regent president Mike Falbo, the head of the search committee, said in an email to UW faculty and staff that Cross rose to the top as "an exceptional leader with the knowledge, skills, and vision needed to take the UW System to the next level of excellence."

Prior to coming to Wisconsin, Cross served as president of Morrisville State College in New York; president of Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, Minn.; and a department head and a professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.

Cross is a U.S. Army veteran and served during the Vietnam War.

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