MADISON (WKOW) — University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross says he is announcing his retirement after serving nearly six years in the role.
In an exclusive TV interview, Cross tells 27 News it was the “right time” to retire and pointed to his age of 71.
“We’ve accomplished a number of things and I think it’s time for someone else to do it,” said Cross.
Cross, who’s held the position since 2014, said his biggest challenge was his relationship with the legislature.
“The challenges we had with the legislature was regarding our fund balances and how to deal with those, and that challenge continues, in some ways helping folks understand it,” he said.
Cross added his relationships with lawmakers improved over the years, but his frustration grew each budget cycle, especially this year after he said lawmakers promised additional funding for UW resources.
“We felt we had secured a commitment for additional resources and that seemed to change at the last minute,” he said. “Legislators indicated to me on both sides of the aisle involved in this that our proposal for $107 million was very reasonable.”
In the end, the UW System received $45 million over the biennium, over $1 billion in bonding authority to modernize buildings, and extended a two-year tuition freeze for undergraduate residents.
Cross, who’s served 42 years in higher education touted the freeze, which has been in place since 2013-’14 after consecutive years of increases.
Both two-year and four-year campuses offer a tuition freeze but Cross said over the years lack of funding from the legislature is causing costs to go up calling the freeze unsustainable.
“You can’t continue to do that,” he said. “You just can’t sustain that. So whether they provide the opportunity for us to increase tuition or to increase state support or find ways to support us in other ways, that’s essential.”
Cross said he intends to remain in the job until a replacement is selected.
Cross said if students don’t feel welcome on campus then UW-System has “failed miserably.” His comments come after a series of racial posters were placed on the UW-Madison campus with exclusionary language and after the university took down a controversial homecoming video.
“It is happening elsewhere and it’s frustrating because in our society if we can be more inclusive, more welcoming, more engaging, if we can’t deal with those issues our society can never change.”
The University of Wisconsin saw a 2.6% drop in enrollment compared to last year with smaller campuses seeing the largest declines.
Cross said the problem is demographic challenges and his solution is to shift towards “non-traditional students,” such as those who are employed but don’t attend a school. He wants to do it through partnerships with businesses and employers.
Cross said the student loan debt crisis is real but believes it’s different for every student. More than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which now totals $1.5 trillion in the U.S.
“It is different than a lot of people projected to be, and it has a lot to do with the decision students make on the front end.”
He said the biggest challenge for student debt is those who don’t complete a degree.
“We have to get students to complete, secondly, they need to understand that our public university fees, tuition, etc. are much lower and some of the largest debt numbers you read about anecdotally are much higher because they went to a private school or paid higher tuition.”
You can watch the full interview with Cross on ‘Capital City Sunday’ at 9 a.m.