“Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth,” part of the mission statement for the University of Wisconsin System, has become a guiding principle for Ray Cross as he prepares to take over as president of the system.

Cross sat down in an interview with the Badger Herald to explain his vision for success to students.

His main goal is to bring innovation and openness to the 26 campuses and extension schools of the University of Wisconsin System as president of the state’s public higher education system.

Cross said he was initially overwhelmed by the responsibility of upholding the standards and traditions of the institution but believes he has valuable experiences that will help him in his position.

“I’m really a very down-to-earth, blue-collar kind of guy,” Cross said. “I was raised in midwestern values where everybody should be respected and valued. I think that kind of attitude helps in these positions because legislators want to see openness, honesty and collaborative behavior.”

Cross has extensive academic experience as a professor at Ferris State University in Michigan, president of Northwest Technical College in Minnesota and Morrisville State College in New York. Most recently, he served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Extension.

In working closely with students, Cross said he has gained a deep respect for the educational experience, in which he believes openness and communication are key.

“When I was president at Morrisville I used to play basketball with students all the time and built a relationship with a lot of students, particularly student leaders, and I miss that,” Cross said. “You feel like you’re actually having an impact on somebody’s life, and that’s the core of what we do.”

As a part of taking the new position, Cross said he plans to take every possible opportunity to engage with students at the campus level.

He said the gratifying experience of seeing students progress and develop confidence, skill and knowledge over the course of their education is a key motivator to his role as an educator and administrator.

“You help them in the next step of life, whether it’s pursuing graduate school or if it’s pursuing a career path,” Cross said. “When they come across the stage at commencement and you give them a great big hug, you couldn’t ask for a better job.”

Cross recently helped develop the UW Flexible Option degree program, which is designed as a way for adults with some college to complete their degrees online if they cannot attend a traditional university program.

The Flex Option will focus on skills-based programs where there are gaps that need to be filled with specific courses. Cross said some liberal arts courses will be available, but it remains to be seen if full liberal arts degrees could be delivered through the program’s online format.

“The Flex Program has tremendous potential to complement, as well, the traditional residential learning experience,” Cross said.

Cross presented the program to legislators at a senate hearing in November and announced UW-Madison and three other UW institutions would be participating in December.

Cross plans to increase this type of collaborative dialogue with legislators in order to achieve common goals.

“We are a public institution, and we want to serve the public in an open, transparent and effective way,” he said. “The system is a different kind of organization in that we’re attempting to add value to the institutions and value to the state at the same time.”

Question and Answer

The Badger Herald sat down with Cross Tuesday to discuss his vision for the UW System. Questions and answers have been edited for style and clarity.

The Badger Herald: What qualities or experiences do you believe will be most helpful for you in this position?

Raymond Cross: Perhaps the most important attribute that I hope I can bring to this is listening. I don’t think anyone is the perfect listener, but that’s half of all communications. We all need to do a better job of listening. I believe the university is full of good lecturers, but we should also be good listeners. It’s phenomenal what we do well, but we need to complement that with listening skills that help us understand how to do better.

BH: What do you see as your main responsibilities in this position?

RC: We are here to provide a quality education and experience to students and to conduct research at the highest level. This should ultimately improve the economy of this state with new services, products and opportunities. Part of my job is making sure that this educational experience is a quality experience and that it has an impact on the lives of students and ultimately on the state and our nation.

BH: What are some of your plans to make higher education more affordable?

Affordability is the concept of the difference between tuition and financial aid. I want to reduce cost by implementing mechanisms to help students graduate quicker. Secondly, I want to develop tools that help us retain and advance students sooner through this process. There are a number of things that we could be doing to reduce cost for students and their families that are not directly related to the price of tuition. I want to be able to do some of those things and work on some of those things.

BH: Could you explain the listening sessions you plan to hold at UW campuses?

What I intend for a listening sessions is to be visiting communities, institutions and people around the state and specifically seeking information about what troubles them on a local level and what we can do to help.

BH: Do you think students will be participating in these listening sessions?

If students have ideas, I’m listening. So I would hope they would participate. I would hope they’re not only invited on campuses, but they’re also sitting front and center. Everything we’re doing is ultimately focused on trying to help students.