Ray Cross just isn’t up to his job.
Certainly, the UW System president has a tough challenge. He has multiple constituencies, and none of them are easy to please. Worse, their interests often conflict, sometimes spectacularly.
Cross first has to answer to the regents, who hired him and most of whom were appointed by Gov. Scott Walker. Then there’s the governor himself and legislators who foot a large part of the UW System’s bill.
Cross has to listen to people down the chain as well. There are the 14 campus chancellors who wouldn’t be in those positions if they didn’t think they were good at their jobs and therefore competent to critique his performance. These chancellors are in charge of faculty, who got to be faculty by being smart, articulate and critical. Then there are the students, who come to at least the Madison campus with the idea that being a thorn in the side of authority is a rite of passage.
But that’s why Cross, or anyone in a position like his, gets the big bucks. His job is to manage these competing interests and pressures and move the entire organization forward. You can pretty much guarantee that at any given time at least a couple of his constituencies will be up in arms over something he’s done. But if he does his job right he’ll balance out the outrage, listen well, treat people fairly and, at the end of the day, earn everyone’s respect for putting the mission of the university first.
This job is hard, but not impossible. His predecessors Katharine Lyall and Kevin Reilly were successful at it, though it should be noted that Reilly was forced out when it was discovered that his campuses had accumulated responsible reserve accounts. Legislators and the governor fixed this problem by slashing the UW System budget by $250 million, insuring that campus finances would be as precarious as they’ve made the state’s finances. Excellent work.
And this is where Ray Cross is failing badly. It is becoming increasingly clear that Cross’ first loyalty is not to the students, not to the faculty or the chancellors and not to the broad mission of the university, but to his political bosses at the other end of State Street.
During the last state budget process it was hoped that Cross’ friendly demeanor and Republican contacts might cushion the university from the worst blows. In fact, he promised UW faculty that if he couldn’t substantially reduce the proposed budget cuts and save tenure and shared governance he would resign. In the end, the budget was only partially restored from a $300 million cut proposed by the governor to a $250 million cut imposed finally by the Legislature. Meanwhile, shared governance and tenure were badly weakened. Cross called that a good enough day’s work and refused to step down.
Then last week it came out that Cross had canceled a scheduled report from the chancellors to the regents about the impact of those budget cuts. There’s a lot not to like in all of this.
The first thing to dislike is that Cross arranged for the chancellors to practice their five-minute presentations. According to reports, he decided to cancel the exercise altogether after listening to some of these dry runs. Cross claims that the presentations were not staying within their allotted five minutes.
A sensible person could ask why he had insisted on a practice session in the first place. These are university chancellors, chief executives of their own campuses and people very used to giving presentations where the stakes are high. To ask them to rehearse their talks — and have them reviewed for content and tone — is more than a little insulting. It’s the kind of thing that indicates a boss who is micromanaging, a practice that kills initiative and morale in any organization.
While it was reasonable for Cross to ask that the presentations be kept tight, it’s just silly to think that a chancellor — who is almost always a professor as well — can limit herself to five minutes on any subject. By asking them to keep it to five minutes the president should have understood he might be able to keep them to a quarter hour or so each.
And is that the end of the world? Is taking a total of three hours to listen to the impacts of a $250 million budget cut such a horrible thing? Really?
What Cross seemed even more concerned about, though, was tone. He put out the word that he didn’t want any “whining.” Fair enough. The presentations would be more effective if they were heavy on facts and numbers and low on emotional speculation. But here again, a good leader trusts his managers. Chancellors are passionate about their campuses, and some, no doubt, would have said things that would have made some of the regents — and legislators and the governor — uncomfortable. Tough. They’re policymakers and responsible for what happens on all the campuses. They should be able to handle the truth.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that once Walker, some legislators or Walker-appointed regents got wind of what was going on they put pressure on Cross to cancel the whole thing, and that Cross just caved.
It’s also possible that once he saw how the whole thing might play out he concluded that it would result in more political ill will and further damage to the UW System in the next budget.
It may be some combination of the two. But if this university stands for anything it’s the relentless pursuit of knowledge. We can’t solve problems by refusing to confront them or by not trying to fully comprehend and understand them. By canceling the budget-cut presentations, Cross showed he does not understand what the university is all about. He put raw politics or political calculation ahead of a search for the truth. He may be a good and decent man, but he’s not up to this task.