Questions left unanswered by President Cross’s TV interview – another view.

In a TV interview on May 17, 2016, UW System President Ray Cross reacted to the no-confidence votes spreading throughout the System that call on the President and the Board of Regents “to recommit themselves to the Wisconsin Idea by carrying out their responsibilities and working with us to strengthen the quality of our state universities, in particular by working with the state legislature to make a positive case for improved access, affordability, and educational resources for our students; for additional support for scholarship and its associated economic benefits; for greater resources for outreach and services to citizens of the State; and by truly respecting, advancing, and participating in shared governance at the UW System.” These resolutions follow years of disinvestment in the State’s universities and attacks on the quality of education by state government.

President Cross says: “I keep telling faculty, don’t disengage. This is not the time to disengage. Stay engaged.” What does he mean?  The trigger for the no-confidence vote was the complete disenfranchisement of faculty during decision-making that surrounded new policies that threaten the quality of education. Faculty have been consistently and persistently “disengaged” by him and by the Board of Regents over the years, and the newly adopted policies promise to disengage them even further. The fact that the faculty have put forward these resolutions is the only reason anyone is listening now.

President Cross says: “The original budget cut was about $351 million, by the time you add all of those things that weren’t identified in the beginning.” And then: “We got that down to $250 (million) and then $200 (million), ultimately. So that was a savings of about $151 million. We think that’s a pretty significant change.”  Should the faculty and the citizens of Wisconsin be satisfied with a “reduced” cut?  Is that the best he can say in support of his style of leadership? How does this help the students who are now facing fewer class sections and advising personnel, departures of countless professors and staff members, fewer services on their campuses?

Addressing the faculty tenure, President Cross says: “I’m a very strong defender of tenure.” He further points out: “What happens when you start to conflate those terms, the reasons for tenure and the importance for tenure in the academy, when you conflate that with traditional labor terms, it weakens our argument that tenure is different.” Wasn’t he the one to first use job-for-life, which then was picked up by Governor Walker?  And wasn’t he the one who conflated tenure with railroad brakemen in his personal email to one of the Regents, and behind the public’s back?

He goes on to say: “It is however important that we also have the latitude to make changes.” But the existing system gave the administration the latitude to make changes already–tenure could have been left alone. In effect, he points that out in the next sentence, thus contradicting himself in the matter of two sentences: “So it’s important in this process of program discontinuance that everybody understand we have done this for a long time without laying off faculty. We have to have some flexibility here; it’s important. But we’re going to continue to do the same things we’ve always done to protect faculty and to protect tenure.”

To paraphrase, they’ve done it for a long time, but now they need to be able to do it by compromising tenure (even though they’ve always done it without compromising tenure). But don’t worry, we’ve never laid anyone off so we won’t in the future. Then, why did we need the enacted changes? He says, “But no one is going to make an arbitrary decision to just close a program or to do that because, gee, we don’t have the need for that.”  Those are hollow words coming from someone who has made then failed to keep prior promises to faculty during the budget, tenure and post-tenure review discussions.

This brings us to his following statement in the same interview: “The future is actually much brighter. The challenges we face now often are a result of a lack of understanding of what’s really going on and how do we engage.”  Cross has provided no clear description of “what’s really going on” beyond what is obvious (and negative), so how could we possibly understand anything else?  Similarly, what is the evidence for the future being brighter? We hear only that ahead of us is yet another “challenging budget” and about doing less with less.

This interview far from answered the most important questions surrounding the current debate about UW quality, and further muddied the waters with unsubstantiated claims and bad metaphors. If nothing else, this interview showed that the faculty’s call for recommitment to the Wisconsin Idea and, hence, to Wisconsin families who count on the University to educate their children properly, is appropriate and necessary. The resolutions are a long-overdue demand that Cross and the Board of Regents do their jobs. They are about preserving UW quality for the current students and future generations.

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