In early January, University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross wrote to UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone that the coming fight over Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to slash System funding and spin it off from state control — then known only to the highest-level UW officials and some high-ranking lawmakers — would be bruising but necessary.

“This will not be easy and we will get consider(able) push back from our faculty and staff,” Cross wrote to Mone on Jan. 6 in an email obtained by the State Journal. “However, this is something we might not get a shot at for another 20-30 years.”

Wednesday, the early warning proved prophetic. Cross, facing withering criticism, told a UW-Milwaukee gathering of employees and students that he’d resign if he can’t substantially reduce the $300 million cut and preserve cherished employee protections including shared governance, tenure and academic freedom.

He stood by his answer later, saying in an interview that “I don’t believe any higher education leader wants to be any part of an institution that doesn’t have tenure or shared governance.”

He said that while he promised to quit if things didn’t go well, he doesn’t plan on going away because he believes the Legislature and Walker are committed to reducing the cut.

He also thinks tenure, shared governance and other provisions cherished by System employees will survive.

Cross’ answer to the question was short — “Yes” — and came in response to this question from Richard Grusin, a UW-Milwaukee English professor who started an online petition to urge Cross not to support the public authority model proposed in Walker’s budget:

“Will you pledge here today that if you fail to secure a substantial reduction in the proposed budget cuts and if you prove unable to protect tenure, shared governance and academic freedom for all University of Wisconsin universities and colleges, will you pledge here today to resign your position as president of the University of Wisconsin System?”

The question was followed by a sustained round of applause from the crowd. When Cross leaned into the microphone and firmly said, “Yes,” the crowd again erupted in applause.

Grusin’s question came at the end of a detailed, three-minute airing of grievances over Cross’ handling of Walker’s proposal. He chided Cross for negotiating the deal out of public view and including the public authority model — which has now lost support from many UW faculty and staff as well as top Republican lawmakers — without adequate study of its risks and benefits.

“What we are now left with is a proposed $300 million-plus in cuts to the UW System budget and the almost wholesale repeal of chapter 36, including all of the academic protections such as tenure, shared governance, employment protections or academic freedom which are fundamental to public university systems across the country,” Grusin said.

Chapter 36 is the section of state law that defines UW System’s purpose, rules and responsibilities. Walker’s proposal would eliminate nearly all of it and leave it to the System Board of Regents — the governing body under the proposed public authority model — to craft new policies.

It’s not clear if chapter 36 would be reinstated if the public authority model is scrapped, which top Republican lawmakers have called for in the last week. Walker’s budget is in the hands of the state Legislature now, with the powerful Joint Finance Committee working out changes.

Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, said last week that the public authority piece of the UW proposal “might be on life support.”

He and other top Republicans have voiced displeasure with the Board of Regents, which at its last meeting passed a resolution promising to preserve shared governance and faculty tenure. The provisions are cheered nearly universally by UW faculty and staff, but some top Republicans want the System to ban the practices, calling them impediments to innovation and overly time consuming.

Republicans in the Legislature also have shared concerns that the public authority model would strip lawmakers’ ability to contain the cost of tuition. Walker has called for another two-year freeze on state undergraduates extending through 2017 but after that, tuition rates would be set by the Board of Regents.

The proposal to split off the UW System under a public authority model echoed a move in 2011 to do the same for the System’s flagship campus, UW-Madison.

Walker championed that move, as well, before it got shot down under fierce opposition from other chancellors and some top lawmakers.

The UW-Madison chancellor at the time, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, argued vigorously for the split. When it was defeated, she abruptly left her job to be president at Amherst College, a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts.

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