UW System President Ray Cross: Walker proposal the 'best budget' for system in 10 years

By Jessie Opoien, The Capital Times

Gov. Scott Walker's spending plan for the 2017-19 biennium is the "best budget" the University of Wisconsin System has seen in 10 years, System President Ray Cross told lawmakers on Thursday. 

"We are very pleased with what the governor has proposed," Cross told members of the Legislature's budget-writing committee. "It provides the first investment of new state dollars the UW System has received in more than a decade."

While UW officials may disagree with some aspects and approaches in the budget, "we don't differ with the overall goals and themes" proposed by Walker, Cross said.

Walker's $76.1 billion budget includes a $100 million increase for the UW System, $42.5 million of which would be tied to performance metrics based on affordability, workforce success of graduates, administrative efficiency, service and other criteria.

In-state undergraduate students see a tuition freeze in the first year of the budget, followed by a 5 percent tuition cut in the second year. The cut would be paid for with a $35 million bump in general purpose revenue.

Cross said he would rather see the money used to fund the cut directed to pay for need-based financial aid when asked by Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, about his position on the proposal. 

This budget follows a four-year tuition freeze along with a $250 million cut to the system's funding delivered in the governor's 2015-17 budget. Before the freeze, implemented in Walker's second budget, tuition had gone up 5.5 percent annually since the 2007-08 academic year.

Asked by Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, how the state should set its tuition rates in the years to come, Cross said an important metric to consider is the percentage of median family household income. But the system has to look for ways to control costs at the same time, he said.

Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, questioned whether the state should provide a tuition reduction "on the back of taxpayers" or whether it should look for "ways to decrease the cost of higher education in general."

Under the governor's proposal, UW schools would be required to offer an option for students to earn a bachelor's degree in three years, and UW schools and the state's technical colleges would be required to have at least 60 transferable credits between the systems.

Cross said he opposes the proposal to increase credit transfers between the systems, arguing it would effectively make every technical college into a two-year UW school.

The governor's budget proposal would also allow students to opt out of paying allocable segregated fees that go toward campus activities and services offered by student government and campus leadership. Walker argues the proposal allows students "freedom to choose" where their money goes, but opponents say students already have input through their elected student government representatives.

Cross said he recognizes the desire to keep student fees in check but cautioned against dealing with the issue "too harshly." Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said the organizations funded by those fees teach students how to lead and prepare them for success in life. 

Shankland questioned whether the move could "erode" transportation services funded by allocable segregated fees. Cross said it's "fair to say" it could, but added universities may be able to adjust the way those services are funded.

Also under the plan, the UW Board of Regents would be required to set a policy for faculty and academic staff teaching workloads. Instructors would be required to report the number of hours they spend teaching to UW administrators, and would be rewarded for teaching more than the standard academic load. Those reports would be made public.

Cross questioned the usefulness of that proposal.

"My argument is … let’s measure the outcomes and let’s not dictate the inputs," he said.

Walker's budget would also write into statute a policy drawn heavily from existing system guidelines promoting free speech on campuses

The proposal would require UW schools to "guarantee all members of the System’s community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn."

The budget measure would not require much in the way of changes, Cross said, adding that the UW System may need to adjust a current policy that says a speaker whose safety cannot be ensured may not speak.

Speakers should be allowed to be heard, and schools should find a way to control opposition to ensure a civil exchange of ideas, Cross said.