Kevin Reilly Speaks On His Departure From UW System

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Kevin Reilly Speaks On His Departure From UW System

Premiere Date: 
August 1, 2013

UW System President Kevin Reilly speaks on his departure from the UW System to ACE.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Kevin Reilly:

First, after a decade on the job, UW System president Kevin Reilly is moving on. His tenure has coincided with a nearly 9% increase in student enrollment at system schools, as well as a 13% increase in degrees awarded. Governor Scott Walker praised the president's work, coordinating university and workforce development. But there's no avoiding that the governor's deep cuts to the system in his most recent budget intensified relations between the system and the Walker administration. President Reilly joins us now.

Kevin Reilly:

Happy to be here.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, what role did these difficult issues of which we've mentioned just one, like the system reserves, political divisiveness and efforts to break up the UW System play in your decision to leave the presidency?

Kevin Reilly:

Well, you know, I started talking to the board leadership about this last fall and then into the winter. I was looking at my ninth anniversary in this job this September, and beyond that, and thought that's probably long enough. So it really didn't play any role. I think over a nine- to ten-year span you have times when things are tumultuous and you have times when things are calm. The job is kind of like being a good sailor, where you use the cross winds to tack and make progress with the university. And I think we did in enrollment, graduation, transfer, financial aid, capital programs, and research dollars. So I'm proud of that.

Frederica Freyberg:

Did you ever have any other university presidents call you up and say, geez, I'm glad I'm not you right now?

Kevin Reilly:

No, because most of them are going through similar things, in the public sector, especially. The recession, certainly the national recession is worse since the Great Depression, affected all of us,  and some states are really in worse shape still than Wisconsin. The kind of contentiousness and political culture affects all states. So, no, I didn't get any of those calls.

Frederica Freyberg:

Many people spoke of how you didn't show what they might call much fight when the legislature's budget committee really raked you over the coals for building up these university reserves. And that, of course, ultimately led to the system having to freeze tuition. Why no fight?

Kevin Reilly:

Well, you know, I think the way you fight is with careful evidence that you keep putting in front of legislators and in front of the public. Legislators are elected by the people. We're in a democracy, and they control the budget. They have all the cards. You don't hold any in your hand. And the way you get what you think you need for the university is by continuing to make those careful, nuanced arguments based on evidence. So I think those of us in these jobs have to be careful that we don't alienate other legislators when they get angry with us in public.

Frederica Freyberg:

Did it feel like a retreat from your position? Because you tried to state it.

Kevin Reilly:

Well, no. There really wasn't a retreat. We had this issue with the balances. We are working through those now with the legislature. Nobody has said don't have any balances. The question is, how much should you have. We had about as much as all the other universities like us. Some folks in the legislature thought that was too much, so we'll work with them to get to a number they can live with and we'll go forward.

Frederica Freyberg:

Some folks in the legislature, speaking of them, how stung are you by the words of the chairs of that committee who called your departure “an exciting opportunity” for the UW and that “new leadership will go a long way to reestablishing trust that has eroded over the years”?

Kevin Reilly:

Couple things. There are 132 legislators in the legislature, and I like to listen to all of them. The governor, the speaker of the assembly, Robin Vos, had very nice, positive things to say. And I think, you know, up until the controversy over the balances erupted, trust was fine. The governor had given us a budget that would have increased our dollars in the university. Legislature was poised to give us more flexibility. And a number of the things the legislature did now were to postpone some of those flexibilities. I think we'll get those back in the next biennium, as we show that we have nothing to hide on these balances or anything else.

Frederica Freyberg:

And so, again, none of that had anything to do with you deciding to step down?

Kevin Reilly:

Not really, no. I mean, it's the length of the tenure. Most people don't stay in these jobs anything like the length of time I have. If you make some hard decisions, you have some people who don't like it. You develop some scar tissue along the way. And then at some point you say what would I like to do with the rest of my life, before I am ready to really retire, which I'm not. This  opportunity to help with the development of new leadership in American higher education nationally came along with the American Council on Education in Washington, and that just felt like something I would enjoy doing and hopefully make a contribution by doing.

Frederica Freyberg:

Not to put too fine a point on this and keep going back to it, but the outgoing chancellor of UW-Madison said freezing tuition, or at least he inferred this, was a bad idea. Clearly it's good for students and families, but what about for the university going forward?

Kevin Reilly:

I would love it if the American populace was at a point where they were with K-12 education, high school education 100 years ago, and said this is so important we should pay everything for people. There should be no tuition, which there wasn't in the City University of New York when my parents were involved with it. But that's not where we are. We recognize that. When you freeze tuition, in the biennium after you do it you have to make up some ground. Costs continue to rise no matter how efficient you are. So it's a temporary fix. It's great for students and families, and we appreciate that. I think it's part of a larger dialogue, Frederica, that we're having around the country about how high can tuition be, how high can it go before you start to push people out who you need to have come in and get a college credential to earn a decent living in the 21st century. I think we need to have that serious dialogue now in this state.

Frederica Freyberg:

As the Board of Regents chooses a new president, what do you hope they look for?

Kevin Reilly:

Well, I think we are an industry, if we think of ourselves that way in higher ed, where our two main platforms are changing, the financing, because states continue to disinvest in public higher education, tuition continues to go up. What's the trend line there? How do we deal with the financing of the future for American higher education? And then on the other hand, our instructional platform, our academic platform is changing rapidly, with all the new technologies, with more and more students earning credits in different places when they work their way toward a degree. The MOOCS, massively open online courses that are the latest craze. I think somebody coming in needs to be able to grapple with that redefinition of those basic core elements of the University of Wisconsin System and American higher education in general.

Frederica Freyberg:

Kevin Reilly, thanks very much and good luck.

Kevin Reilly:

Thank you. 


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