UW faculty worry about ‘power grab’ by Cross at budget listening sessions

By: - May 26, 2020 6:15 am
Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in fall

Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in Madison, WI (CC by 2.0 generic)

On May 7, news broke of University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross’ plan to address the financial challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic collapse. 

Cross’ “Blueprint for the University of Wisconsin System Beyond COVID-19” faced an immediate backlash from faculty, staff, students and politicians who say that they have been burned before by what they see as top-down decision making from Cross and the UW-System. Cross’ plan was compared to the sudden consolidation of the state’s two-year colleges in 2018 and even the controversial Act 10, which mostly eliminated the union rights of public employees. 

The plan calls for cutting programs from campuses, centralizing campus support operations and offering online degrees through UW Extended Campus. 

Tweets, blog posts, op-eds and letters poured in from across the state, with criticism of Cross’ plan arriving from every conceivable angle. Critics said it was a power grab by the UW System, that it doesn’t even address the COVID-19 budget shortfalls, that its announcement ignores shared governance — the decision making process by which universities operate — and that it will ultimately do more harm than good to the state’s public university system. 

The most outspoken faculty members from campuses around the state acknowledge there needs to be some belt tightening as the system deals with the financial impact of the crisis. But the most common refrain is that this plan doesn’t even do that much. 

“It doesn’t in any way respond to [COVID-19], which is much more immediate and acute,” says Nick Fleisher, a UW-Milwaukee professor and President of the American Association of University Professors-Wisconsin. “Here you’ve got this major immediate financial challenge,  and this plan to make all the comprehensive campuses self-evaluate and decide who’s going to keep what program. If they did that, that’s something that would save some money, but it’s not going to save the kind of money COVID is going to cost.” 

In a series of listening sessions held virtually this week, Cross attempted to dismiss some of the criticisms as he made an effort to go through the system’s shared governance process. 

Faculty members who were on the calls — which were organized regionally with three to four campuses per meeting and not open to the public until recordings were released days later — say they’re cautious about moving forward and hope this is a first step in the process, not the last.

“I don’t have any illusions about this but I’m a little more optimistic,” says Jon Shelton, a UW-Green Bay professor and vice president for higher education at AFT-Wisconsin. “My sense is that these listening sessions were held to disrupt the narrative that this plan from Ray Cross is a done deal. The long-term implications will be what happens next. Is this the only time faculty and staff are listened to? If that’s the case it’s deeply problematic.” 

In the first meeting, held Monday, Cross immediately addressed the criticism. He said the ramifications of the crisis will be long-term, so the solutions need to be long-term.

“First of all, I’m not sure everybody understands the challenges we face,” he said. “In light of all that we’re facing, some would say ‘Ray this is a short-term problem.’ Yes it is, but it’s on top of all these long-term problems, so we need some long-term solutions.” 

But faculty members say the long-term problems, such as tuition freezes and declining state investment, started in the Legislature and won’t go away just because programs are cut. Some also refute Cross’ point that the system needs to immediately come up with a long-term plan — rather than spelling out how campuses can safely open to students in the fall. 

“System needs to focus on getting the comprehensives through the next six to twelve months and keep students safe,” says Eric Compas, a professor at UW-Whitewater. “Figure out how to do face-to-face if possible and how to do that safely. How to support some programs that need to be moved online. There’s so many obvious things that need to be focused on. It’s not that they can’t do two things at once, but it’s distracting from what we need to focus on for this fall. 

More than once, Cross took issue with how the narrative was formed around the blueprint, saying the ideas were just “concepts,” and nowhere near a done deal, portraying it as the recommendations of an exiting system president for what he believes will need to be done.

He also blamed the press for the language that was used to describe the plan. 

But some of that narrative was formed because of how the blueprint was released. Cross first described his plan in a call with members of the media before it was discussed at a meeting of the Board of Regents. The plan was shared “on the condition [news outlets] not seek comment from others until after publication of this story,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal. 

Because Cross went to the press first, and didn’t allow reporters to ask others about the plan, faculty and staff felt like, once again, their concerns would be ignored. 

“This announcement came out, nobody had been consulted about it … Ray Cross said publicly ‘I’m not going to talk to people because they’ll leak it out,’” says Terry Warfield, a UW-Madison professor and chair of the University Committee. “The way people find out about these things is by press release. People are going to lose their jobs.” 

After three listening sessions, faculty in the system are still not impressed by Cross’ plan. Which may not even matter because there is currently an ongoing search for his replacement. But there will need to be some sort of plan. Professors say they hope they’re involved in the decisions and the plan isn’t just a “power grab” by the system. 

“The blueprint is, and I’ll be really candid about this, deeply problematic,” Shelton says. “It’s reckless actually. Faculty and staff have gotten the reputation for just saying no to everything, and I’m cognizant of that. We’re all really conscious of the fact that there is a lot of economic pain out there and that will be the case moving forward. People have lost their livelihoods, they’re struggling to get unemployment insurance. To say the UW system shouldn’t have any cuts or restructuring is not realistic. The problem is it’s really meant to take more power in the decision-making process for the UW System.” 

The UW Board of Regents is scheduled to meet by teleconference June 4, but the blueprint is not set to be voted on.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.