Ray Cross

UW System President Ray Cross

Mike De Sisti -- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, via AP

As a proposal to reorganize the University of Wisconsin System goes to the Board of Regents for approval Thursday, just a month after it was announced by system President Ray Cross, a former university official is wondering what Cross has done to resolve the issues he now cites as reasons to dismantle the system.

“I don’t know where the leadership is,” said Gerald Campbell, former vice chancellor and provost of UW Extension from 1990-1995 and professor emeritus of UW-Madison/Extension. He said he thinks the reorganization proposal would move around people and parts of the organization without necessarily addressing the challenges confronting it.

Cross is asking regents to approve the merger of UW Colleges’ 13 two-year campuses into seven of the system’s four-year institutions. In an Oct. 11 announcement, Cross cited plummeting enrollment at the colleges — 32 percent between 2010 and 2017 — as the impetus for the merger. In a rare subsequent interview, Cross mentioned improving the rate of transfer from UW’s two-year colleges to the four-year institutions.

“I would ask Cross: You were chancellor of UW Colleges and Extension. What did you do as a leader to analyze these problems in more detail over that period of time?” Campbell said Wednesday. Reorganization alone is unlikely to turn around enrollment trends, he said. Evidence of deep analysis of the trend has not been brought forward.

Cross served as chancellor of UW Colleges and Extension from February 2011 through February 2014, when he began his appointment as president of the UW System.

UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said after the merger plan announcement that no cost savings analysis of the reorganization had been done, but that Cross was confident there would be savings. He has declined to talk about layoffs.

The proposal has been criticized by faculty and student representatives, Democratic lawmakers and a group of former heads of the two-year college campuses. Officials in the counties that own and build the two-year campus facilities said they are worried about loss of local identity after the merger. All the critics remark on the lack of information about the likely impact of the reorganization and what seems an unfounded rush to complete it.

The changes would take effect in July.

Marquis offered this comment Wednesday, asking that it be quoted in its entirety:

“During the past seven years that UW Colleges have seen declining enrollment, Wisconsin’s birth rates have also declined. These shifting demographics are occurring locally and nationally, and have been discussed extensively as they relate to student enrollments and Wisconsin’s workforce needs. President Cross and UW Colleges enacted major reforms and restructuring efforts to help manage declining enrollments and budget reductions, but unfortunately, they still face significant challenges. President Cross is taking steps to keep UW Colleges’ campuses open while tuition levels remain the same. He proposes regionalizing resources to more effectively serve students and keep college affordable for students and families.”

Campbell also raises concerns about moving UW Cooperative Extension under the aegis of UW-Madison. Extension was created as a division of UW-Madison in 1906 and became a separate unit in 1965.

Although most people identify UW Extension with agricultural agents who assist farmers, it offers much more, Campbell said. After the division was separated from the agricultural college at UW-Madison, it began work in community development, natural resources, farmland preservation, and planning and zoning, he said. The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences also has changed in the past half-century.

“It is now an intense biological sciences unit,” Campbell said.

Merging the two back together will present challenges.

“It’s not like a board game in which one square was left open 50 years ago and now you move a piece back on that square,” he said.

Campbell worries that Extension may become a low priority when it is once again part of the larger, higher-budget UW-Madison.

Colleges and Extension “is doing the work of teaching, research and outreach and is managing the support resources necessary for that work,” Campbell said. That’s not apparent to the casual observer, he said, or even faculty and staff of the university. “In my 33 years as a UW-Madison faculty member, my extension work was thought of and budgeted as ‘service,’” he said.

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