A moment with former UW President Ray Cross

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President Cross is a rare breed.  A humble public servant, observant Christian, college educated engineer, and Vietnam veteran.  He arrives to our coffee shop rendezvous fashionably late in an older white pickup truck, sporting jeans and a black polo shirt bearing our university’s red “W”.  His shoes are a little scuffed – maybe polished weekly, but not daily.  And per conventional wisdom, a non-descript facemask.  An enterprising socialite would be clever to buy him a brazen Badger mask for Christmas.  Even in a suit and tie you would still, despite the formality, describe him as a kind old man with no shortage of vigor.  It must be all that fresh Wisconsin milk.

While Ray is well known to me, he has forgotten about our previous engagements first during my time as a Student Body President, and then as the Vice Chair of the UW – Milwaukee Senate Finance Committee.  With such a demanding position that he kept for years – I’m undisturbed over the blank.   He’s a private man that doesn’t needlessly promote himself.  In many ways he’s a holdover off all those good qualities that Baby Boomers wished for their children.  At least 30 minutes of our time together covered many individual cases of pride and marks of history with students he helped to blossom.  A poor, homeless Dominican student with nowhere to go that he personally mentored into a T14 graduate school.  Two black classmates that were at their throats one semester – that he counseled and then had independently grown into being roommates a year later.  These being the most charismatic examples.

Ray was thrown into some of the most difficult periods of the UW’s recent history.  Free speech.  Title IX.  Shrinking enrollment.  Relations with the legislature.  All of these issues came to a head during Ray’s tenure.  Through hard work and his good spirited diplomacy (e.g. sitting down with nobody reporters), actual change was able to be made to more embody the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.  Ray doesn’t talk politics (at least while the microphone is hot) but bases his far-reaching education decisions the same way he reaches students.  A loving effort to see people make themselves better versions.

Title IX courts are an outgrowth of Title IX of the Education Act of 1972.  Originally intended for equal funding for women’s sports (among other critical social corrections) have morphed into campus disciplinary hearings where students are punished for behavior and comments (both real and imagined) outside of university property or events.  Intended as a way to curb sexual assault on campuses – have since devolved into vindictive ex’s and people caught cheating filing bogus complaints as supplements to having character.  You’ll rarely find a criminal case beset by incompetence or corruption but you’ll undoubtedly witness it in these modern day Kangaroo Courts.  Ray welcomes the repeal of the Obama-Biden “…requirements outlined in the now famous “Dear Colleague” letter” as “they force the university to abandon neutrality and to treat basic student disciplinary matters as though they were … criminal cases requiring statutory processes.  The DeVos guidelines help to restore some balance to the process but also create other difficult challenges the university is not equipped to accomplish.  Obviously, any criminal sexual offense should be handled by the police and in our courts, not a university student disciplinary process.”  Often, findings for attempted rape are a one-year suspension.  Please take as much time as you need processing your bemusement and horror to that last sentence.  Anyone truly responsible for such a heinous act deserves a jail cell, not a gap year.  As universities do not hire judges or lawyers (or provide any defense for accused students) Pres. Cross is insistent to defer any off campus criminal courts where defendants enjoy rights denied in the UW.

Ben Shapiro graced both UW Milwaukee and Madison.  Both campuses erupted into seething anarchy at the thought of this 5’8” 160lbs Jewish man speaking confidently at his podium.  Ray rejects this sensitivity outright.  “The First Amendment is the best tool to educate and grow students … it’s an anti-intellectual attitude (to silence them).  You can be heckled outside of that room, you can display signs, any physical act in the room [may happen] but they cannot be prevented from speaking in any sustained manner.  Period.”  During my entire tenure at UW – Washington County and UW – Milwaukee, I’ve never heard a single member of faculty or administration cut so deftly through Cancel Culture.  Even though Ray is a vehement defender of personal liberty, he stands opposed to mandated punishments for interrupting students.  Ray also stands in good company.  Mr. Lukianoff, founder of F.I.R.E. (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), is also opposed to any campus’ policy to punish interrupting students.  As I stand in disagreement with such intelligent, freedom loving men – it warrants a reexamination of my stance.

The most important – and least flashy – of our conversation topics are finances.   The UW has gone through tremendous changes these last 10 years.  Campus administrations have been slashed, course curriculums have been streamlined, and Mr. Cross’ efforts have saved Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars and helped to control costs for students.  Ray still strikes for more independence in the UW System.  He argues that tuition shouldn’t be set (or capped) by politicians and that the “university should also have the ability to “revenue bond” for capital projects and to bond against future revenue for cash flow variances.”  … We’re the only Public university in the country that doesn’t have a bond rating.  Why?  Because the university doesn’t borrow, the State of Wisconsin borrows or bonds for us. …  We don’t have a credit card.  We don’t have a bond rating.  That’s what [our] fund balances are for, [COVID-19] is a rainy day.  We could have helped get through that.”

I have the same distrust of public servants that many hundreds of millions of Americans justifiably have, but Ray takes seriously the effort and cost that is undertaken to educate young men and women.  The wrinkles on his face were not earned from hard labor or sun tanning.  They’re lines that good men receive when they’ve been trusted with sacred power.

William Buckley once contended: “The largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so.”  In an alternative universe, Ray would be our top candidate for 2022.