University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross said it’s time for a fresh look at how the statewide system does business, calling for an array of measures that would cut costs and could affect campus life.

The process will start with a look at the System’s business practices and move toward other areas including faculty workload, class offerings, credit requirements and student fees, looking for ways to be more efficient and trim in areas where possible.

“I kind of equate it to accumulating barnacles,” he said in an interview Friday after outlining the plan for the Board of Regents. “This is tantamount to scraping those barnacles off on a regular basis.”

Cross said it’s unknown if the process will lead to job losses or what the total savings might be, saying it’s far too early and that better answers should be available by next spring. It comes amid a very tight budget prompted in part by years of funding cuts from the state and a tuition freeze for the last two years that’s expected to be continued for the next two years.

Cross has asked state lawmakers for a funding boost of $95 million in the next two-year budget, a request that Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, recently called “a tough sell.”

Some areas that Cross identified for scrutiny include majors that require more than the standard 120 credits to graduate, courses and majors with chronically low enrollment, student segregated fees and faculty time spent outside the classroom.

His call for closer scrutiny of how student segregated fees are spent prompted an angry response from Associated Students of Madison, the governmental body that allocates some of the funds at UW-Madison.

“This announcement is being made without the consultation and input of student stakeholders,” the group said in a statement. “The allocable programs offered to the student body at UW-Madison have been carefully developed and voted on by students in response to popular demand and demonstrated need.”

Cross said a small number of students across the System were involved in identifying the priorities and that more students would be involved in the process going forward.

Undergraduates at UW-Madison pay $1,136 for the school year in segregated fees, which are spent in a variety of ways. The biggest slice goes toward the Memorial Union. Other funding destinations include the University Health Service, a bus pass, recreational sports and child care for parents.

The ASM uses $20 of each student’s fee to fund student organizations that compete for funding.

Despite a tuition freeze, students at the state’s 13 public four-year campuses saw an increase this year in segregated fees, which jumped an average of 3.6 percent.

Cross’ speech Friday to the Regents was light on details but signaled a stepped-up effort across the System to address concerns raised in recent years by state lawmakers about shortcomings in financial reporting and questions about faculty workload.

“As we ask the governor and the Legislature to increase the state’s investment in the UW System, we need to continue to demonstrate our commitment to transparency and fiscally responsible management practices,” he said.

Cross touted renewed confidence in the System from lawmakers over a recent change to report cash reserve balances quarterly. He also pointed to a further accountability measure to start a fraud hotline across the System, which was approved by Regents on Friday.

A strategic planning committee has been formed to discuss some of the priorities. Regents vice president Regina Millner and Jessica Tormey, Cross’ chief of staff, will lead the committee, which will also include campus leaders and System staff.

UW-Madison’s Office of Quality Improvement will partner with the committee on the effort. There will be public meetings throughout the state February through April, a measure promised by Cross when he was a candidate for the president’s job.

Classes to be prioritized

In the classroom, he called for campuses to prioritize core required classes and scrutinize low-enrollment programs and what he described as the proliferation of elective courses.

For faculty, he called for “uniform workload guidelines” to govern activities that happen outside the classroom, such as class preparation, grading and administrative tasks.

The issue flared recently when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called for a tighter focus on UW research that benefits the state economy rather than “the ancient mating habits of whatever.”

But Cross said he’s not addressing faculty research in this effort, noting that it’s mostly funded by federal sources and grants.

Instead he wants a clear definition of how faculty spend their time inside the classroom and especially outside of it so the System can set guidelines for what’s normal and help justify salary increases for high performers.

Vos said on Friday he supported the proposed changes, saying in a statement that “I appreciate that UW System President Ray Cross is being proactive in tackling issues at the UW System with the new reform plan.”

Cross said he’s aware the changes will be met with questions and vowed to involve faculty in the process.

Grant Petty, a professor of atmospheric science at UW-Madison who’s also president of the faculty group PROFS, said he welcomed the opportunity to explain how faculty spend their time and that low-enrollment classes and electives already are scrutinized tightly.

“I’d like to emphasize that low-enrollment courses here at UW-Madison are often also high-impact courses,” Petty wrote in an email. “That is, they are usually taught to advanced students on a specialized topic by a professor with world-class expertise in that subject.

“Sometimes losing low-enrollment courses due to budget constraints means that our students lose valuable educational opportunities.

“Efficiency at UW-Madison cannot and should not be measured strictly in terms of the number of student credit-hours taught,” Petty wrote.

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Reporter, Wisconsin State Journal