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The University of Wisconsin System is at a crossroads

This week, University of Wisconsin System president Ray Cross, announced his intention to retire, capping off his 42-year career in higher education. Cross, 71, will continue to serve as UW-System president until his successor is found.

Cross was named UW-System president in January 2014, and began his appointment Feb. 15 of that year. Prior to that, he served as chancellor of UW-Colleges and UW-Extension.

He has received praise from current and former regents, for his leadership in managing the UW-System during a time of steep budget cuts and a sustained tuition freeze, while always maintaining a focus on ensuring quality education and student success.

In conducting the national search for Cross’s successor, the UW-System Board of Regents must look to the future, and ensure the colleges and universities in the UW-System are prepared for the challenges the next few years will bring.

Current trends show an overall decline in the number of students enrolled in University of Wisconsin colleges and universities. While a few institutions have seen moderate growth, the majority have seen drops, ranging from fractions of a percent, to more than a 28 percent decrease at the Wausau campus.

College enrollments are tied to economic conditions. When times are good and jobs are plentiful, enrollments go down, particularly at the former two-year campuses and the regional universities in the system. When the economy slows and quality jobs become more scarce, colleges and universities tend to fill with traditional, and returning students.

A major challenge for the system, will be to make the necessary cuts to scale back expenses during the lean times, yet still deliver world-class education that is necessary for graduates to compete in a global marketplace.

At the same time, the system must remain nimble enough to rapidly scale up when enrollment numbers increase, in response to changing economic conditions.

An additional challenge for the UW-System, will be in walking the line when it comes to dealing with private businesses. While it is necessary for the UW-System to be partners with business and industry, the colleges and universities must use care to maintain academic independence.

The UW-System must also look to the future, when it comes to the maintenance and expansion of campus physical plants. The academic buildings, athletic fields, offices and dorms, represent a substantial public investment.

There must be adequate planning and fiscal discipline, to ensure ongoing investment in maintaining these buildings continues and that designated funds are used for their intended purpose, rather than raided for short-term budget fixes.

In the words of Cross, “There is no better investment for the state of Wisconsin, than the University of Wisconsin System.”

The next UW-System president must also steer the system toward greater independence from the political quagmire of the state government. It is time to stop using the UW-System as a political football.

The next leader for the UW-System needs to look to the system’s future, while protecting its history and continuing its mission.

Members of the Courier Sentinel editorial board include publisher Carol O’Leary, general manager Kris O’Leary and Star News editor Brian Wilson.