Leadership & Governance

U. of Wisconsin System Chief, Who Battled to Keep Flagship, Will Resign

John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal, AP Images

Kevin P. Reilly says of his nine years as president of the U. of Wisconsin system: "You have periods where people stand up and applaud, and periods where people stand up and throw some vegetables."
July 30, 2013

Kevin P. Reilly, whose presidency of the University of Wisconsin system has coincided with some of the state's most-contentious debates about the role of the flagship campus and the future of collective bargaining, will resign from his position in January after more than nine years at the helm, university officials announced on Tuesday.

The departing president said he planned to take a part-time consulting position at the American Council on Education, where he will provide advice on programs that serve college presidents and senior administrators. Mr. Reilly, who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, also expects to teach in the Wisconsin system.

Some of the biggest flashpoints in Mr. Reilly's presidency came in 2011, when he opposed a push by the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison to break away from the system.

In the same year, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, pushed through legislation that sharply limited collective-bargaining rights for public workers, including faculty and staff members at state universities. (Mr. Reilly remained publicly neutral on the union issue.)

Cash-Reserves Controversy

Mr. Reilly's announcement on Tuesday came amid pressure from some lawmakers for the president to resign, but he said he began discussions about stepping down as early as last fall, "before the latest business." This past spring Mr. Reilly came under fire when the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that the university system had $648-million in cash reserves, which mostly came from tuition.

That stockpile struck some legislators as tantamount to shoving hundreds of millions of dollars under a mattress while asking students to pay more in tuition. On the Madison campus, which has the highest tuition and fees in the system, Wisconsin residents taking a full course load will pay $10,403 in annual tuition and fees for the 2013-14 academic year.

"You have periods where people stand up and applaud," Mr. Reilly said, "and periods where people stand up and throw some vegetables, and that's to be expected."

The university's reserves totaled a little more than 25 percent of the system's $2.5-billion budget, not including federal aid and other money given for specific purposes, such as grants and contracts. The system is in talks with lawmakers about what constitutes an appropriate reserve level, Mr. Reilly said.

Michael J. Falbo, president of the system's Board of Regents, said Mr. Reilly's planned resignation did not demonstrate a loss of confidence from the board. At the same time, Mr. Falbo said that "maybe the last great thing" Mr. Reilly did as president was to start an objective conversation about naming a successor.

Mr. Reilly's move comes at a time of transition for the Board of Regents, which as of June has more members appointed by Governor Walker than by his Democratic predecessor, James E. Doyle. Ten of the 18 people on the board, including one ex officio member, are Mr. Walker's appointees.

When local reporters asked Governor Walker about Mr. Reilly's status in late May, the governor said that his new appointments to the board would give him "a much bigger say in what happens with that," the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Tough Budget

The Wisconsin system saw notable growth during Mr. Reilly's tenure, increasing enrollment from about 166,200 in 2003 to nearly 181,000 today. The 9-percent increase was part of what Mr. Reilly described as the "Growth Agenda for Wisconsin," which was aimed at educating more state residents and at job creation.

Mr. Reilly did not expect to have a bitter battle over the future of the flagship campus in Wisconsin, but he said there was a silver lining to that debate several years ago. Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, then chancellor of the Madison campus, argued that allowing it to leave the system would free the campus of many state regulations tied to hiring, procurement, and capital expansion. While Mr. Reilly opposed independent status for Madison, he later sought some of those same flexibilities for the entire system.

"Some good things did come out of that," he said.

For example, campuses no longer need advance approval from the system to recruit new deans, and chancellors can approve named professorships at their institutions without system-level involvement.

There is still a tough road ahead for the system. After the furor over Wisconsin's cash reserves, Governor Walker scaled back a proposal that would have allocated $181-million to the system over the next biennium. Instead, the budget was cut by $65.7-million, and lawmakers demanded a two-year tuition freeze. The Legislature also required but did not provide funds for salary increases and other expenditures that total tens of millions of dollars, university officials say.

"If you have a nine-year tenure there are always going to be flashpoints along the way," Mr. Reilly said. "But if you scratch down not far below the surface, the people in Wisconsin have a strong and proud sense of what the University of Wisconsin is and what it needs to be able to do for their children and grandchildren."