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Top UW official fields concerns in River Falls

Ray Cross, University of Wisconsin System’s president .
Ray Cross didn’t bother to put a happy face on it.

“I don’t think any of us here have to be told this is a difficult time,” the University of Wisconsin System’s president said to members of the UW-River Falls community during a listening session he held Wednesday, April 27, at the University Center.

The remark was part of a very brief introduction Cross made before opening up the floor to a question-and-answer session that lasted about 45 minutes.

Audience members didn’t hold back.

Roiled by the effects of state budget cuts on the campus, faculty, students and staff sounded off on concerns about what’s happened -- and what could happen.

“I wouldn’t tell other students or people I know to come to this university anymore,” said UWRF student Ashley Rosana, of Lake Elmo, Minn.

Cuts to UW-System funding led to a $2.87 million reduction at the River Falls campus for the 2015-17 state budget cycle. A UWRF news release said the cuts -- combined with tuition freezes enacted by lawmakers -- have resulted in the reduction of 55 workers, including 18 permanent layoffs.  

Rosana told Cross she was fed up that campus-level feedback being channeled through Cross that hasn’t led to changes in funding for the state’s public university system.

“We want to see clear action,” she said, “and it’s not being done.”

Cross apologized to her for the communication breakdown, but told her and others in the crowd that fallout from cuts shouldn’t diminish pride for what’s being accomplished at the university.

“This is a great institution,” he said. “You need to be proud of what you’re doing.”

He blamed much of the funding problem on what he called a communication breakdown of UW-System’s accounting practices among lawmakers.

Cross said legislators “cherry-pick” budget figures like UW-System’s fund balance and paint a picture that he said isn’t a fair representation of the budget reality.

Much of those reserve-fund dollars are restricted to certain funding silos, Cross said. Meanwhile, he said the system’s unreserved fund is in decline.

“We’re doing everything we can” to communicate that message to lawmakers, Cross said.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said Monday that the focus on UW-System’s reserve funds came during a period in 2013 when UW leaders proposed a 5.5 percent tuition hike -- in spite of tuition reserve funds doubling. Having reserves isn’t a bad thing, she said, but noted there was more to it.

“It was really the messaging, along with what was happening,” Harsdorf said, pointing out that the issue arose before Cross became president.

That process set in motion a focus on reserves and a tuition freeze. Harsdorf said the system that emerged has established particular reserve funds and placed a greater emphasis on transparency of where those dollars go.

“To me, it really gets down to transparency,” Harsdorf said.

Concerns raised

One issue raised by an audience member was what happens to UW-System’s reputation as the effects of the budget cuts emerge.

“I don’t think the reputation is hurt so much by the budget cuts or the challenges to tenure,” Cross replied.

Rather, he said, the university system is battling “anti-intellectual rhetoric that surrounds all this.” Cross explained how critics have painted faculty as “those academic elites” -- a charge he said is inappropriate and polarizing.

“It’s detrimental to us and is a reputational thing that really irritates me,” Cross told the audience.

He later took umbrage with aspersions that faculty are lazy. If there’s anyone to blame, Cross said, it’s UW administration.

“Blame us,” he said.

Another audience member asked Cross how the cuts might impact the prospect of recruiting high-quality students and faculty.

Cross agreed that it’s a concern and urged others to rally the campus community.

“We’re creating our own national reputation,” he said, “and that’s damaging.”

Agricultural economics professor David Trechter asked Cross what more administration is willing to do in attempting to lift the tuition freeze.

Cross said it’s tempting to be more “radical” in lobbying policymakers, but said that might not be well received, considering the state’s current economic condition.

“I’m not sure this is the time just yet,” Cross said.

His visit coincided with an April 26 report from the UW Tuition Setting Policy Task Force, which proposed the concept of allowing individual campuses to set their own tuition rates. Cross said he would “definitely give consideration” to the concept.

Such a concept could stem homogeneity in the system, he said.

“How do we develop that uniqueness?” Cross said after the meeting.

Harsdorf, who did not attend last week’s meeting in River Falls, said she expects another “challenging budget” ahead for the state. The focus in preparing the UW-System budget will be addressing workforce needs as well as educational goals, she said.

Harsdorf said UW-System and Gov. Scott Walker are both assembling budget proposals to be taken up later this year.

Pierce County board member Ben Plunkett peppered Cross with questions at the meeting, ultimately asking him what metrics the state’s university system uses to measure success beyond job placement.

Cross said university officials were conducting polling on that issue, and agreed that there’s more to higher education than getting students into the workforce.

“It’s deeper than that,” Cross said.

Also at issue was the possibility of a no-confidence vote for Cross and the Board of Regents being taken by UW-Madison faculty. Cross said that while he disagreed with the stance that he supported their right to take the vote.

He did, however, agree with a comment who referenced a study saying no-confidence votes create toxic work environments that lead to leadership resignations.

“It creates a hostile environment at a time when we need to work more closely with each other,” Cross said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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