Help Ray Cross reposition UW System

Ray Cross, UW System President

Ray Cross, UW System President

Ray Cross’ stated willingness to resign as president of the University of Wisconsin if the GOP-controlled legislature and Gov. Walker don’t relent on the $300 million cut to his budget demonstrates just how much he needs to reposition the university in strategic terms.

Instead of being a target of Republicans, the system should be viewed as the state’s greatest asset. But Republican legislators look at the system as Madison-centric and as a bastion of left-wing opposition to where they want to take the state. UW – Madison is a world-class university, but it has done the system no favors by largely ignoring the needs of most of the state – where most of the votes lie.

With the exception of exporting its graduates and its involvement statewide in agri-business, the boundaries of UW – Madison are largely the boundaries of Dane County.

Some departments at the Madison campus may be centrist, such as engineering, business and medicine, but most of the kool aid imbibed and poured by its faculty is the bluest of blue.

That may work when Democrats are in power, but it is a recipe for major opposition when they are not. In reality, governors and legislatures of both persuasions have been tough on university budgets for couple of decades.

Ergo, from a marketing and political perspective, the university has done a poor job of strategic positioning.

When Katherine Lyall was president as the university entered the 21st Century, she made huge strides in repositioning the system by staging four economic summits. It was a brilliant move. She acknowledged that the university had a huge role to play in then prosperity of citizens across the state.
She knew where the votes were – outside of Madison. She knew that “innovation economy” played to university strengths.

She still got beat up in the budget process, mainly because unmanaged health costs kept crowding out other state priorities, as they do today. But she was on the right track toward a better value proposition to offer to voters and legislators. Her university of the future was still about education and graduates, but also about job and wealth creation.

So, put on your strategic positioning hat, and let’s help Ray Cross out of the penalty box. He’s a fine man, and he doesn’t deserve the brickbats he is getting from all sides. To get the dialog going, let’s hear your strategic thoughts that could better connect the system to the hearts and minds of citizens and legislators of both parties. Here are some that I have elicited from thinkers across the state:

• Move the office of the president from the Van Hise ivy tower on the Madison campus to Milwaukee to make a stronger connection to the business hub of the state. There’s open UWM space right downtown. The present disconnect of the System from the business community is a major economic disadvantage.

• Reorganize the system’s 26 campuses into regional groupings. Each would speak with a powerful voice to their home base legislators. Lobby the heck out of them in their back yards, where they listen. Economic development works from the ground up at the regional level better than top down from Madison. In short, organize to where the votes are. The last UW reorganization was more than four decades ago.

• Get serious about making UW – Milwaukee the equivalent of Michigan State in tandem with U – Michigan. UW – Madison can fend for itself. It has more than $6 billion in off-balance sheet assets that aren’t tapped enough. Like Stanford and MIT, it has generous mega-rich donors. UW – Milwaukee operates on a shoe strong amidst its great ambitions. Three of its scheduled buildings just got shoved out of the biennium capital budget. With the states biggest poverty problems in its region, it deserves disproportionate, not pro-rata, support.

• Convene a Blue Ribbon Commission on the future of the UW System to apply some tough love to its sprawling offerings of majors and courses and to the myriads of “centers” that have minimal impact on the state.

• Own up to the brain drain of more than 10,000 college graduates per year, including those lost on a net basis through the Minnesota reciprocity program. From a pretty strong entrepreneurship foundation at some campuses, put full weight behind the creation of a startup economy. That’s where the hot jobs will be created to keep our kinds and grandkids here. UW’s foundations could make investments in that arena, as UWM Foundation already has.

• To reclaim credibility in financial management, follow the lead of most university systems in the country and produce rigorous set of consolidated financial statements. (Include the recent $250 million UW Hospital investment in Illinois.) Most of the controversial reserves are at UW – Madison, not the other campuses, as consolidated statements would show.

• Deal with the ancient issues of tenure and shared governance with faculty in the context of the Blue Ribbon Commission. It’s time for some innovative thinking on those major topics.

• Tackle the related issues of soaring tuition and student debt head on. Again, there are many creative financiers in the state (many UW grads), who could come up with fresh strategies to reduce the burdens of students and parents in their quests for college educations.
The UW brand has much strength, partly because another former UW leader, Donna Shalala, challenged conventional wisdom to prove that Badger athletics could operate on the same high place as UW academics.

She was a strategic marketing genius. So was Lyall. Your turn, President Cross.

Are there other ideas out there that will help him get UW System back to the high ground?

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  • Gen Gee McBee

    Tell Walker and Cross to tell his staff to stop the UW System’s inequality in allocation of state funding, which — per student — gives students at the Madison campus more than twice as much state funding as goes to students at the Milwaukee campus, the campus with more students from Wisconsin, even though students pay the same tuition at both campuses. That’s one of the main reasons why the Madison campus with 40,000 students also has almost three times as many faculty, the grant-getters, as at the Milwaukee campus with 30,000 students. Take this step alone to equalize state funding per student and watch the Milwaukee campus become what it always could have been (and watch it get much more in grants, in the business hub, to help its budget, too). But will Walker and Cross and the Madison campus allow it? Of course not. Or, conversely, raise Madison tuition and reduce Milwaukee tuition proportionate to the share of state funding per student, which would mean tuition at the Milwaukee campus at less than half of what it is in Madison. But will Walker and Cross and the Madison campus allow it? Of course not, because UW-Milwaukee students — again, at the campus with the most students from Wisconsin — subsidize UW-Madison students.

    • JohnTorinus

      Good comments and insights. Thanks.

      • psilos1

        John, hope you will be at the discussion about the things you are talking about. April 15 in the Fox Cites, April 16 in Wausau. Live strap statewide as well. We need you there.

      • Gen Gee McBee

        Thanks; this is a high compliment, coming from you, with your fine work on this topic for weeks.

        I ought to have added that I also applaud the suggestion to move System administration to the state’s largest city (or, in my colleague’s compromise, above, at least some of administration) — a suggestion about which I have mused in past, as well, to ameliorate the symbiotic impact of System administration and Madison politics, both campus politics and the other sort.

        Alternatively, for a radically different idea, we might combine moving System administration and solve the problem of UW-Superior, by making better use of facilities not being used at smallest of the four-year campuses, the one closest to Canada. Administration much extols to faculty (at least at Milwaukee, but belatedly now at Madison, as well) the benefits of “distance learning.” But might there actually be more benefits to be found in “distance administration” — even more distant from “the flagship.” (So the rest of us are the garbage scows of the fleet?)

    • Frank Rojas

      Does Madison offer the same programs as Milwaukee? NO. It has Med, Vet and Law schools as well as a much larger grad school. All those cost more per student. It also has facilities such as extensive libraries and computers the state does not need to duplicate on other campuses. All this costs money that is better spent in one place to get benefit for all. They are very different in dozens of ways and compete at different levels. Wisconsin can barely afford one flagship U. . UWM is a regional school and should remain so. Madison turns that money into research and patents and other outputs that would be lost if you tried to another approach. Quality attracts quality and there is a very distinct pecking order among universities. The best people only want to work with the best at the best schools. And they can move anywhere in the US and many foreign countries to get that. They are not ties to Wisconsin.

      • Gen Gee McBee

        The thing is that many of us know you as a constant commenter elsewhere — so we know that you’re not in Wisconsin, have not been here almost since your years in Madison, where you started as a student before creation of. the UW System. (At least you did not refer to the other 25 campuses, as my Madison faculty did, as “the hyphenated campuses.”). You still have the Madison mindset, and especially an anti-Milwaukee mindset. Have you even been in Milwaukee in this century, and on the Milwaukee campus? Your comment is evidence otherwise.
        And you clearly do not wish to address the central point of my comment, which is the disparity in state funding of the campuses, despite their students paying the same tuition, so that students at the Milwaukee campus subsidize the only UW campus that matters to you — from afar, where you have no stake in the budget cuts, the budget of the state where we live. When you pay taxes here, when you will have to live with the impact of the budget here, you may have something to say about the realities here that will be worthwhile reading,

        • Frank Rojas

          I addressed you funding claim by pointing out programs–cos;lty programs that skew the Madison numbers. Programs that are not needed at any other campus at this time.
          I have been to Wisconsin many times since my graduation as I served om a UW Madison advisory board until a few years ago. I still get back almost every year. And as a two-time alum of UW Madison I still have a real stake in the continued excellence of that university. I have also donated to the Bascom Hill Society level and worked for over 20 years as volunteer admissions recruiter at college fairs. .I also pay Federal taxes that fund a great deal of the activity at all the UW schools.
          Milwaukee should have the local resources to build its own version of excellence. beyond state funds. Why have they not done that to any degree in the last 100+ years? What is the status of the UWM foundation? Don’t go looking to beggar UW Madison for Milwaukee’s comparable lack of success.

          • Gen Gee McBee

            Gosh, thanks for visiting Madison — which, as we say, is in Wisconsin but not of Wisconsin — but it’s obvious that what you know about Milwaukee and its campus, the one with the most Wisconsin students of any campus in this state, wouldn’t buy a cuppa coffee in Seattle. Sure, we appreciate your tourism dollars — but a tourist is what you are, not a taxpayer. Heck, I visit relatives in the state of Washington, too, but I don’t butt in about your state budget.

          • Frank Rojas

            UWM GRADUATES fewer state residents than UW Madison. So basically it is a huge waste of taxpayer money. Or an expensive CC.

          • JohnTorinus

            Google grief, Frank. You are over-wrought.

          • Boris Ostensky

            Look at the statistics available at, John. Madison graduates twice the percentage of students that graduate at UWM. UWM beats out Superior and Parkside. That’s a pitiful fact. You think you can build a world-class research university on a student base that ill-prepared for college? Another reason why UWM should concentrate on its urban mission and not attempt to be something it is not now and never will become. Rojas is right on the money,

          • JohnTorinus

            Well, we can agree to disagree. We in the Milwaukee region need UWM to become much more than an access university. It can do both: access and R&D-based innovation.
            Further, many great business leaders have come out of UWM. Their companies need a close relationship to UWM for their innovation agendas. JCI, Rockwell, GE Healthcare and others are proving it can be done. That’s where UWM has a leg up – connections to big time industry. Madison has a few big time companies; Milwaukee has a ton of them.
            Ergo, UW – Madison franks poorly on business sponsored R&D. It does great with the feds, but not so much with business.
            But, this is not a contest between the two campuses. We need them both to be great.

          • Boris Ostensky

            Why don’t you talk to the folks at GE, who have used the Madison campus for research on their imaging systems for decades. Very little of the IP used by GE in Southeast Wisconsin has come from anywhere but Madison. None of it has come from Milwaukee. Without access to the Madison campus, it is unlikely that GE Healthcare would be located in Wisconsin. This cuts against your narrative, however, so I expect you to continue to ignore it.

            You mention Johnson Controls, which has recently announced a new research partnership with Madison. Rockwell? Ask it about its partnership with the Madison campus on the Manufacturing Systems Engineering Program. Again, all of this cuts against your narrative.

            Where will the money come from to make UWM “great”? We are not playing a Zero Sum Game here — we are playing a Minus $300 Million Game. Take from Madison and you diminish the entire brand, since it is the Madison campus — the flagship — which established the brand, and which all the other campuses lean against. Do you really want two mediocre research universities in the state? That’s what you are pushing for, whether you know it or not.

            If Milwaukee had a “ton of big time companies” the economy in Southeastern Wisconsin would not be in the tank. You fool yourself if you think otherwise.

          • JohnTorinus

            Your thesis that this is a zero game is dead wrong. Building up UWM does not have to come at the expense of UW Madison.
            And, I am not advocating a $300 million cut. But Madison can absorb a cut a lot better than the other campuses.

          • Boris Ostensky

            The Budget enacted in July will chop funds from the UW System Budget. Hopefully the amount will be less than $300 million, but it will be a giant wad whatever number is settled upon. There is no new money to spend. How do you “build up” UWM with extra funds without taking it from someplace else? I didn’t say it was a Zero Sum Game — quite clearly it is a Minus $300 Million Game at this point.

            Why do you think that Madison can absorb the cuts better? Because it has other pots of money from which it can draw? These alternate fund sources provide the critical difference to the Madison campus and have historically been used to supplement state support, not replace it. If these funds are pilfered — which you advocate — who would contribute to them going forward? Donors contribute to build up, not replace what has been the state’s obligation.

            Why should the Madison campus be punished for having dedicated and generous alumni? Why can’t UWM alumni step forth and do the same?

          • Frank Rojas

            Just getting out the facts. Still a little upset by that Duke game you know. Where the real University of Wisconsin played. You want a better UWM–build it. But dont tear down the real UW to do that. You got a good name to start with. Dont fuck it up.

    • Boris Ostensky

      The Wisconsin resident student populations at the Madison and Milwaukee campuses are relatively equal. Yes, UWM enrolls more undergraduates, but the Madison graduate. law, medical, and veterinary students nearly equalize the two numbers when all state students are counted on both campuses. Look at the stats easily accessed at,

      UWM will never be on the same plateau as Madison unless the state economy improves drastically or unless UWM alumni start giving to their alma mater like Madison graduates have done for 150+ years.

      Why shouldn’t UWM concentrate on its urban mission? That is the real value it can contribute to the state — serve and help raise up the impoverished. Yes, this should be a shared responsibility across the state but UWM is uniquely positioned to serve in this manner.

      All the rest of this is petty jealousy about prestige. All of the other campuses relish the UW brand because it has stood for excellence for a century and a half. Unless we do what we reasonably can to preserve and protect the Madison campus, the brand will become worthless.

  • Keith Montgomery

    If by “centers” you mean the UW Colleges, I’d point out that the thirteen Colleges collectively are the third largest “UW” institution with around 14,000 students. Over 60% of their students are first generation students — well above the UW average of around 35% — and the impact these local centers of access have on the lives of students is enormous. Tuition is as least $2,000 less than any other UW school and there are further savings on residence hall expenses because most students are local and often place-bound. Cost per student — mainly due to low salaries and other efficiencies — is almost $3,000 less per student. Yet, the success rate of their transfer students is second-to-none — over 80% graduation for AAS holders, compared to just over 30% for WTCS “2+2” transfers. I’d say they have a significant impact at very low cost and are a model in that regard. Otherwise I liked your column.

  • Jeff Leigh

    There are some ideas worth discussing here and there is certainly a perception problem, conflating the entire system with UW-Madison. There are also points raised with which great care will be necessary. Bullet point 2, on regionalization, has some potential especially where majors are concerned, but this agenda was proposed in the recent past and shot down, mostly because there was little evidence that any savings would be realized. A real threat to the well-being of our students, however, is the bigger concern. As Keith Montgomery states, the UW Colleges provides excellent opportunities to our students across the state at a remarkably low cost. If the UW Colleges were reorganized under the auspices of the local four-year campus, these institutions and all the good work that they do would likely suffer as they would be less important budgeting priorities for the new parent campuses. You might be better off focusing on ways in which the entire UW System could function as a system with perhaps a centralized online program, centralized study abroad program, and perhaps centralizations in the functioning of its administrative offices. In terms of curriculum, diversity needs to be balanced with the issue of duplication. You also have to be very careful with issues of tenure and shared governance. Both institutions allow the employees at the center of the educational endeavor the ability to speak truth to power, facilitating prudence born of a broad discussion of issues important to the public in the place of administrative decree. Without tenure and shared governance, given the increasingly poor compensation packages offered to our professors, there would be little hope of attracting in the future the high quality professors we have had in the past and now struggle to keep. Finally, the UW System needs to embrace its role as a ‘job creator,’ but it also needs to maintain a public appreciation of the fact that job training in a narrow sense is not its greatest service in this role. Its greatest service is rather in fostering the traditional academic skills of critical thinking, creativity, and careful communication, which lead to innovation and thereby pay back to its society many times over.

    • Gen Gee McBee

      To my History colleague at a two-year campus (and to your campus colleague posting here, too): Please know that your students are appreciated, and your work is evident in their success at the four-year campuses. At my campus, we benefit by transfers from several of the two-year campuses (including one where I started my career in the UW), well-prepared by you to succeed with us.

      As for the business side of this question, given this blog: You and Mr. Torinus may wish to watch the livestream of the visit by President Cross today to the Eau Claire campus, where this question was raised. He responded with the costs of closing a campus, specifically with the example of the last one that actually was closed — yes, it can be done, but the cost/benefit ratio always must be considered. And it turns out that the costs (not detailed, but perhaps payback to the counties that built the campuses?) must be paid from the UW budget for many years; the final payback for the Medford campus was only within the past couple of years, he said.

      So, closing any campuses would not appear to solve the problems facing the governor and the legislature, seeking short-term solutions in this biennium for their “budget crisis” with UW budget cuts.

  • Colin Scanes

    Broadly I agree with John’s well thought out Blog that the University of Wisconsin System
    needs to position itself strategically and public discussion. A few thoughts:

    1. There needs to quantifiable measures to ascertain whether the System or its programs
    (centers, majors, courses) are successful. This should be the role of the individual
    campuses and the System lead by President Cross. Let’s ask questions such as:
    * What are the important indices/metrics?
    * What is the value-added of System?
    * What are the incentives for doing something different?
    * What are the efficiencies by regionalization?
    * Can shared governance be accomplished with responsibility and accountability to the
    * Is tenure consistent with rigorous post tenure review

    2. Let’s not devalue the contribution of the University of Wisconsin Madison (UW) to the
    economy of the State and the perception of it throughout the World.
    * UW is a great university ranked 24th in the Shanghai 500 ranking of universities
    * Over $500 million per year go into the Wisconsin economy from Federally-funded
    research expenditures at UW (is ranked 9th for Federally-funded research in 2011)
    * Out-of-State students at UW contribute even more (>$600 million) to the Wisconsin economy
    * The Research Park claims $825 million in economic impact
    These expenditures alone have an economic impact over $4 billion if you include multiplier effects. While the expenditures are focused in Dane county, this is still in the State.

    3. Yes – University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM) could, and indeed should, be a great research
    university, equivalent of say Michigan State University. This requires the following:
    * Nationally competitive salaries for faculty (with tenure)
    * Resources (equitable treatment by System)
    * A vision, strategic directions and mind-set of an aspiring research university

    4. The System Office in both Milwaukee (the business center of the State) and Madison
    (the political center of the State).

    • JohnTorinus

      Great insights and contributions. A high level commission could sort out many of these concepts and pave the way for change, never an easy thing to accomplish.

  • Frank Rojas

    Dumbest commentary I have read in years. It appears UW Madison’s biggest problem is being too good and successful. Only in Wisconsin is success a problem=being average is better. Your claims are mostly wrong or merely misleading. Terrible stuff.

    • JohnTorinus

      Well, Mr. Rojas, what’s your solution for getting UW System out of the penalty box?

      • Frank Rojas

        1. Separate UW Madison from rest of System. Currently nobody can really distinguish things that happen at or emanate from Madison versus all the other UWs. Also the two groups have little in common yet one-size fits all rules seem to be the trend and dont work at a top R-1 university that competes in a global versus state market..
        2. I don’t worry much what the Repubiclowns think of Madison. Their brand of know-nothing stupidity will soon die out on its own. And I say that as an old school Republican.
        3. Downsize instate enrollment to fit state funding. You cut 10% you lose 10% of seats at UW.Madison which can always backfill with OOS students anyway or just downsize a bit. No more free ride for the state.
        4. Let the UW run itself at it sees fit within a broad mandate. That worked mighty well for most of its 160+ years. Biggest problems came from state interference. Not UW mistakes.

  • psilos1

    How do we make sure that “blue ribbon panel” gets formed? Policy making by budget crisis is no way to govern.

    • JohnTorinus

      Totally agree. Last time around Lyall called it.

  • Lisa Brunette

    In his sixth bullet point, Mr. Torinus refers to UW Health’s recent acquisition of
    SwedishAmerican Health System (he called for the system to include the “$250
    million UW Hospital investment in Illinois). The UW Hospital authority is
    separate from UW-Madison but as a public authority, its finances are a matter of
    public record. Hence, we want to clarify his comment about the
    ‘investment in Illinois.’

    SwedishAmerican Health System has become a part of the UW
    Health system, and now has full access to our quarternary care services,
    including our nationally renowned academic subspecialists. All parties
    recognize the need for SAHS to update and modernize some of their
    infrastructure, (including, for example, their electronic health record system
    and inpatient units). We anticipate that these needs will be met through the
    operating income generated by SAHS, which is very strong, and should provide
    ample funds to meet these needs. Contrary to speculation from others, we do not
    plan to transfer a large amount of cash from UW Health to SAHS. Our current
    projections are that SAHS will continue to thrive, both in its clinical
    services and in its finances, and will not require support from the system, but
    rather will provide an invigorated stream of patients to UW Health who are
    seeking the specialized services of an academic health center.

  • Boris Ostensky

    Here’s another example of how the Madison campus “does nothing for the rest of the state,” John…


    • JohnTorinus

      Good story. Good work. Good results. Don’t think it changes the main thrust of my contention that the regions of the state need to be aligned with a reorganzation of UW System on a regional basis, instead of a Madison-centric basis.

  • Boris Ostensky
  • Boris Ostensky

    How many decades would it take to get UWM to the point where it could produce this kind of work, John?


    • JohnTorinus


      You are missing the point. It is great that UW — Madison does world class work in areas like stem cells. But UWM is also doing very high level work in many disciplines. If you are a citizen of the state, you want eggs in more baskets than Dane County.

      • Boris Ostensky

        You miss the point as well. We are looking at a Budget which will strip up to $300 million in state support for the UW System over the next two years, yet you advocate a spending binge for UWM. You have also advocated plundering the assets of two independent non-profit corporations which were built by Madison alumni to provide the support for their campus that the state could not provide over the last century. Unless her alumni come forward, there will be no extra money to expand the present mission and role of UWM unless it is confiscated from others. That would be a fool’s mission, John. Our state can barely afford the only world-class research university it now has. The hard truth is that we cannot afford to build another one.

        • JohnTorinus

          Yes. We need to build a world class economy — across the state, not just in Dane County — to support a world class flagship campus. Therein lies the challenge. Dane County can’t support UW — Madison by itself.
          To juice the state economy, we need UW — Madison to play a bigger role. The same goes for UW — Milwaukee, which is stepping up, and the rest of the 24 campuses.
          UW — Madison is spawning about six startups peer year through WARF. It can do much better. WARF is investing about $2 million per year in startups. It can do better. The Madison campus rates low on business sponsored R&D. It can do better.
          I love UW — Madison. (Went there for my journalism courses.) But it can do better for the citizens of the state,

          • Boris Ostensky

            Perhaps the old-line Milwaukee companies should use Madison researchers. It has certainly worked out well for General Electric, which uses the Medical Physics Department in the School of Medicine and Public Health for most of its basic research. It is unlikely that GE would have remained headquartered in Southeastern Wisconsin without this connection.

            Of course the Madison campus can and should do a better job. This is no time for any university in the state to rest on its laurels.

            Encouraging that your latest manifesto makes no mention of plundering the independent entities which support the Madison campus. The time is now for UWM alumni and supporters to stand and help that institution rise up. God knows that process won’t occur if the state is responsible for kick-starting the effort.

          • JohnTorinus

            Boris, We agree more than we disagree.

            But “plundering?” A tad over-wrought, would you agree?

            P.S. Many M7 supporters are indeed stepping up for UWM, including GE Healthcare. It just put $1 million into a program for computational science. It is just great that GE has a deep relationship with both of our research universities.
            Yes, the state could step up more. Tea Party people don’t step up; they count and save nickels and declare victory. They confuse spending and investment. Companies with a Tea Party CEO would perish in shot order.

          • Boris Ostensky

            Plundering overwrought? No — right on the money. Again, glad that you have backed off your original extreme position.

            Let’s consider the relationships between GE and the Milwaukee and Madison campuses. GE gives $1 million to UWM and invests $32.9 million in Madison.