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Thursday, December 25, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 38.0° F  
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Madland: Ray Cross is the right UW System president for the times
Cross' approach is exactly the right one.
Credit:Peter Jakubowski/UWM Photo Services

In a Wisconsin State Journal article published last Sunday, a reporter follows new University of Wisconsin System president Ray Cross as he makes rounds of the Capitol saying hello to lawmakers, many of them the same legislators who voted to slash UW's funding in 2011 and then made a scandal out of the system's savings in 2013.

"There isn't a person in this building that intentionally or in any malicious way wants to harm the university," Cross is quoted as saying.

Hmm, I can build a pretty good case against Representative Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).

It seems nasty to me that the new president of the UW System -- an amazing network of educational resources stretching from the flagship of UW-Madison to the smallest county's UW-Extension office -- has to go around and suck up to the same people who have cut the university system's funding and attacked its reputation.

But, I have to admit, Cross' approach is exactly the right one. If the UW System is to be successful, it needs to be friendly with Republicans.

This is the reality for the next ten years. Even if Democrats manage to regain the Senate or the governor's seat, the Assembly is firmly gerrymandered until the 2022 elections. Republicans are going to control that body, and it is helpful to have someone in the world of public education who they don't consider to be an enemy.

Steve Nass is never going to be a friend to education, but that doesn't mean his entire party should be written off.

I had also been skeptical of Cross's plans for quickly developed flexible degree programs known as the UW Flexible Option. I was concerned that this was the first step towards turning the University of Wisconsin into the University of Phoenix. But, after reviewing the program, I think it can only make the great education of Wisconsin's system of colleges and universities available to more people. Beyond that, Cross' creation can also help avoid future spending cuts by raising the UW System's profile.

Little known fact: there are UW campuses outside of Madison! I know, it surprised me too. Obviously, I'm kidding. But, perhaps because of its physical location, UW System is often depicted in a Madison-centric light when it usually has far greater interaction with the rest of the colleges and universities. These campuses are pretty popular in their respective towns as they are often as important economic enginges. Would Whitewater even exist if there wasn't a college there? However, the UW System is distant, a Madison bureaucracy. The legislature can slash the UW System, and residents don't immediately feel that the cuts trickle down to their kid's college.

However, Cross could further develop his flexible online education into something that truly unifies higher education in this state. A flexible program where people can take some of their classes online, get some credits from work experience, take a couple at one of the local two-year colleges and finish up at a four-year university. It would be a true representation of the Wisconsin Idea, and make college more affordable in this era when our state's politicians refuse to do anything meaningful about college costs.

If students and their families begin to see themselves as part of the UW System and not just one campus, it can only grow support for the system and its new president.

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