Pity Ray Cross. The formerly genial president of the University of Wisconsin System is trapped between an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)–fueled state government and Board of Regents, on the one hand, and the venerable, obstinately popular “Wisconsin Idea” of accessible public higher education, on the other. What’s an ambitious university administrator to do?
Cross’s conundrum has forced him into some questionable bargains, as he attempts to reconcile a devilish, well-funded assault on public institutions with the deep blue sea of support for accessible education. Most recently, Cross back-doored a deal to merge the UW Colleges, a network of two-year campuses he once led as chancellor, into the Wisconsin system’s larger, comprehensive universities. Recognizing that the access and affordability the UW Colleges provide throughout this predominantly rural state could well make this move controversial, Cross kept the merger a secret between him and the regents, surprising even the current UW Colleges chancellor with an announcement in October. Recently, Wisconsin Public Radio obtained e-mails exchanged between Cross and Regent Gerald Whitburn, in which Cross complains of “getting hammered by the ‘shared governance’ leaders complaining that they haven’t been involved in the process; however, had they been involved, we wouldn’t be doing anything.”
Strong protections for academic freedom and democratic governance have been foundational to the creation of an internationally venerated university system here. One of Cross’s predecessors, Charles Van Hise, first articulated what has come to be known as the Wisconsin Idea in 1905, declaring: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state.” With their open admissions practices and locations in small communities around the state, the UW Colleges have been a crucial realization of the Wisconsin Idea.
The Wisconsin Idea also infused Chapter 36, the same state law that created the UW System in its current form in 1973:
The mission of the system is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.