Ray Cross

UW System President Ray Cross

Mike De Sisti -- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, via AP

University of Wisconsin System faculty voiced dismay last fall over not being consulted about a plan for a sweeping reorganization.

“It was shocking. I felt blindsided,” said Holly Hassel, an English professor at UW-Marathon County in Wausau and chair of the UW Colleges Faculty Council of Senators.

The lack of consultation with faculty, staff and students was not an accident, a new report by Wisconsin Public Radio makes clear.

The revelation of behind-the-scenes discussions underscores what Hassel said was already clear.

“President Cross and the Republican legislators and Gov. Walker prefer a more hierarchical way of organizing the institution, a more autocratic style of leadership than the deliberative model that has been the cornerstone of the UW System,” she said Friday.

Emails to and from UW System President Ray Cross, obtained by WPR through an open records request, showed little patience for internal debate of the plan that had been discussed with legislators and business leaders before most UW employees had a clue.

On the day the plan was officially unveiled, Cross privately expressed his frustration with concerns raised by faculty, staff and students through shared governance groups designed to give them influence over university affairs.

"Getting hammered by the 'shared governance' leaders because they weren't involved in the process; however, had they been involved we wouldn't be doing anything!!" Cross wrote to Regent Gerald Whitburn on Oct. 11, the day after the story broke in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and hours after the system announced it.

The plan will eliminate UW Colleges and Extension, merging two-year colleges like UW-Marathon County with four-year institutions and splitting up Extension functions between UW-Madison and UW System Administration.

Hassel is one of two faculty representatives on Cross’ 25-member steering committee to implement the restructuring. She said that tapping the expertise of faculty would have made for a smoother transition.

For example, Hassel said including faculty expertise earlier on could have avoided problems, like putting UW Colleges’ online degree programs under UW System Administration, an office that lacked the accreditation to run them. That meant Regents had to enact a fix authorizing all campuses to offer online bachelor’s degrees, although it is uncertain which will elect to do so.

Nick Webber, the lone student on the steering committee, said Friday he was troubled by Cross’ inappropriate remarks about shared governance.

“It is my firm belief that shared governance plays an integral role in ensuring transparency, accountability, and the quality of education we have come to expect from the University of Wisconsin System,” Webber said. “It is crucial that shared governance remain at the core of university progress, for this deliberative process serves as an institutional safeguard to political whims and other outside forces that jeopardize the experience of our students.”

UW faculty, staff and students may not have had a chance to comment on the plan prior to its unveiling a month before its adoption by the Board of Regents, but Republican legislators and business groups did.

Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities, talked with Cross about the reorganization two weeks before it was unveiled, WPR reported. Cross expected his support, said Murphy, who had previously called for the elimination of UW Colleges and Extension.

By midday on the day the plan was announced, a phalanx of lawmakers was on board. UW’s state liaison, Jeff Schoenfeldt, emailed Cross that he had met with Reps. John Nygren, R-Marinette; Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam; Tyler Vorpagel, R-Plymouth; Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah; Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan; Romaine Quinn, R-Barron; and Sens. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon; and Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac.

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"By and large, broad and widespread support from my people," Schoenfeldt told Cross.

Cross emailed Whitburn that Dave Eckmann, president of the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce, and other business leaders had promised vocal support of his proposal.

The business group praised the reorganization in a statement released just after the official announcement.

“The proposed UW merger could be very good for our communities,” Eckmann said. “It will require development of strong academic programing that aligns o he needs of our industry sectors and workforce.”

The steering committee is working toward a July 1 deadline to implement the restructuring plan.

There’s a lot of work to be done, reanalyzing curriculum, degree requirements and faculty oversight to ensure smooth fit between the joined campuses, Hassel said. “People are working super hard, trying to get it done.”

Officials at the four-year institutions that will merge with former college campuses have generally been welcoming, and there is enthusiasm about new possibilities, she said.

“But I think, like us, some of them are daunted by the task,” Hassel said.

Webber said that shared governance groups’ contributions during the implementation stage ought to make Cross appreciate them. “I have found that shared governance leaders have fostered healthy dialogue and worked to find common-sense solutions to complex problems at all levels. It is my sincere hope that divisive sentiments toward the employees and students of the University of Wisconsin System will no longer be tolerated.”

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