The University of Wisconsin System will soon be searching for a new leader. President Ray Cross announced his retirement Friday after five years on the job and more than 40 years in higher education.
Cross, 71, will stay on as president until the Board of Regents hires a successor.
"Serving as president of the UW System has been the most rewarding work of my life," Cross said in a statement. "I believe there is no better investment for the state of Wisconsin than the University of Wisconsin System."
Cross served as system president during a politically contentious time. GOP lawmakers and former Gov. Scott Walker slashed funding and imposed a tuition freeze, which is still in effect.
In the most recent budget cycle, Cross said he felt like he was "kicked in the shins" by GOP legislators' move to provide about half the operating funding requested by system. He had more success lobbying for money to renovate and replace aging campus buildings.
In an interview in June during budget talks, Cross told WUWM that he was worried about Wisconsin's future if the state didn't properly invest in higher education.
"We have employers around the state, everywhere I go, they're screaming for talent, they're screaming for people," Cross said. "In 20 years from now, if we don't invest thoughtfully at this point and at the level that's appropriate, we'll regret that as other states pass us by."
Some criticized Cross, saying he didn't take a strong enough stand against cuts to the system and cowed to the job-creation agenda put forth by Republicans. The liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now tweeted Friday that Cross is "leaving behind a legacy of enabling and appeasing the right-wing legislature that was so intent on dismantling the UW System."
But UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone says Cross has been a powerful advocate during difficult times.
"To have a tuition freeze and to not have the resources needed, that deprives a lot of the state of what is necessary to move education and advance us forward," Mone said in a phone interview Friday. "And Ray has been at the front of the line making strong arguments to that end."
State funding was one challenge for Cross. Another was declining enrollment, especially at UW two-year colleges. In an effort keep those institutions afloat financially, Cross ushered through a major restructure. Two-year colleges were consolidated with four-year universities.
The former Waukesha and Washington County colleges are now branch campuses of UW-Milwaukee. Chancellor Mone says it fits with Cross' mission to maintain access and affordability. Tuition is less expensive at two-year campuses.
"I think that that's a long-term play," Mone said. "That's my view on the restructuring. I think we will have so many more opportunities in the Milwaukee region because of that."
But it doesn't solve the problem of declining enrollment – something the next system president will need to take up. This year, preliminary numbers show enrollment systemwide dropped by 2.6%.
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