System president announces retirement after 42 year career in higher education

Jack Tierney, Editor in Chief

UW System President Ray Cross announced his retirement after a 42-year career in higher education. He served as president for five years and led 39,000 employees. He was responsible for the UW System’s $6 billion annual budget.

He will continue to serve as UW System president until the UW System Board of Regents finds his replacement. They said they will conduct a nationwide search like they have in the past.

Cross, 71, began working as the UW System’s seventh president in February 2014.

Prior to that, he was chancellor of the UW Colleges and UW-Extension.

Cross earned a bachelor’s degree in technical education from Ferris State University and a master’s degree in industrial education at Central Michigan University. He then received his doctorate in college and university administration from Michigan State University.

He said serving as the president of the UW System was the most rewarding work of his life.

“I believe there is no better investment for the state of Wisconsin than the University of Wisconsin System,” he said. “From cutting-edge research on cancer, water quality and how children learn to educating Wisconsin’s future leaders, the UW System has never been more important.”

Cross’ recent contribution to the UW System is the campus-wide merger that started in 2018.

The merger was a decision Cross made in response to declining student enrollment rates at the two-year access campuses, declining birth rates in rural Wisconsin counties and declining high school graduation rates.

The UW System merger streamlined the transition process between the two-year access campuses and the comprehensive universities.

It added bachelor’s degree programs to the access campuses and associate’s degree programs to the comprehensive campuses.

It also allowed university budgets to be consolidated under one roof.

In addition, Cross made a number of contributions during his tenure:
Oversaw a 10.3% increase in the number of graduates at all levels from 2008-18; students of color and underrepresented students doubled their graduation rates during that time. Both percentage increases were a record for the UW System.

Directed changes to hiring policies, which required all UW institutions to document instances of sexual violence and sexual harassment committed by employees and to share that information with other employers during the hiring process. A UWO sexual harassment case that resulted in a $325,000 settlement was influential to that decision.

Required all UW System employees and students to complete an online training module that explains Title IX rights and responsibilities, which was intended to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment issues. Cross said this became a model program at campuses across the nation.

Cross received support from regents and state legislators for managing the UW System through a tuition freeze that many students and parents liked, but that made investment decision difficult.

The tuition freeze was issued early in Cross’ presidency by former Gov. Scott Walker after it was understood that the UW System had a $1 billion cash reserve and was increasing tuition rates at 5.5%.

Cross said he could have done a better job at that time explaining why he was building up the budget the way he was and said it was a low point in his presidency.

The tuition freeze remains in effect today, but regents said its time should soon come to an end.

Cross said he felt like he was kicked in the shins after the Joint Committee on Finance announced their 2019-21 biennium budget that was less than half of what he asked for, but managed to swing a $1 billion dollar agreement for capital improvements on UW System campuses a month after the biennium budget was approved.

“He has guided the System through financial uncertainty and has positioned the System extremely well for the future,” UW System Board of Regents President Andrew S. Peterson said.

The UW System president reports to the Board of Regents.

UWO received $500,000 for capital improvements with Cross’ help and it was directed to phase two developments of Clow Social Science Center, which will modernize the labs and classrooms in the College of Education and Human Services.

UWO Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said he is appreciative of Cross’ leadership and service to UWO, the UW System and the state of Wisconsin.

“He made it his mission to remind legislators, business leaders, scientists, teachers, artists, entrepreneurs, farmers and our state’s legion UW System alumni of the critical role each public institution plays in changing lives and shaping a better future for everyone in Wisconsin,” Leavitt said.

“This says nothing of President Cross’ investment of more than 40 years of his life in higher education as a dedicated faculty member and passionate administrator,” Leavitt said.

Cross is a husband, father of four and grandfather of five.

He is the oldest of four children, grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan and said his formal education began in a one-room schoolhouse.

From 1967-70, Cross served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and was awarded four medals for his service.
He made a career after that in technical design, working for Lockheed Martin and General Motors.

Cross served as a faculty member and department head at Ferris State University, president of Northwest Technical College (Bemidji, Minnesota) and president of Morrisville State College.
He said he plans on relaxing in his retirement.

“The University of Wisconsin System is a tremendous asset for the state, for our communities, for our students and for businesses,” Cross said. “There is no better talent generator than the UW System. It has been humbling to work on behalf of the people of Wisconsin to advance the mission of our public universities.”