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‘An omission is a choice’: UW System Regents face backlash for excluding faculty, staff from presidential search committee

The nine-person committee selecting UW System President Ray Cross' replacement includes no faculty or staff, breaking decades of precedent and drawing criticism statewide.

The nine-person committee selecting UW System President Ray Cross' replacement includes no faculty or staff, breaking decades of precedent and drawing criticism statewide.

Image By: Emily Gerber

The committee searching for the next UW System president — a position overseeing 167,000 students — does not include any faculty or staff members, breaking a tradition that goes back to the 1990s. 

UW Board of Regents President Drew Petersen appointed a nine-person search committee composed of himself, three Regents, a former Regent, a student Regent, two chancellors and a provost. The committee’s selection will lead the UW System’s 13 four-year campuses and 13 branch campuses, succeeding current President Ray Cross, who announced his upcoming retirement at the end of October. 

Previous presidential searches included faculty and staff on their committees, stretching back through the three most recent UW System presidents.

The 2013 committee that selected Cross was double the size of the current committee. The 18-member group included six Regents, three former Regents, three campus administrators, one System administrator, four faculty and staff members and one student. 

Both the 2004 and 1991 search committees — leading to the appointments of Kevin Reilly and Katharine Lyall, respectively — included faculty and staff representatives as well. 2004’s group had 18 members, four of them staff or faculty. The committee formed in 1991 featured 17 members, five of them staff or faculty, according to the Wisconsin State Journal

While a 2017 Regent policy change reduced the number of members on chancellor search committees to 10 — five of whom must be Regents — the size and composition of presidential search committees are not specified.

Faculty and staff — the two excluded groups — make up nearly 59 percent of the UW System’s approximately 41,000 employees, the State Journal reported. 

The lack of representation in this area drew criticism from across the state. 

“Whether it’s intentionally sending a message or not, it means that they simply do not value the input from those groups, and they are not willing to make people from those groups full voting members of the search committee," Nicholas Fleisher, a UW-Milwaukee professor and president of the American Association of University Professors Wisconsin Conference, told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Multiple campuses’ faculty and staff senates have passed resolutions calling for an expanded search committee, including UW-River Falls, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Stevens Point.

UW-Madison faculty advocacy organization PROFS said the lack of representation on the presidential search committee will be seen “as a deliberate insult — correctly, in our opinion,” in a Friday letter to Petersen.

“What then is to be made of a search committee that omits the largest share by far of System employees, and especially those employees whose work constitutes the essence of what the University of Wisconsin stands for?” the letter said. 

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, also wrote a letter to UW System administration requesting the inclusion of faculty, staff and student representation on the search committee. 

“Shared governance is vital to the UW System … I am profoundly disappointed that this committee does not follow this long-held tradition,” Shankland wrote. “An omission is a choice, and inclusion can be a choice too.”

Petersen, who approved the committee, said input from additional parties will be gathered in public hearings, emphasizing in a statement to WPR that the current committee is “best positioned to guide this search.”

“We’re very focused on making sure faculty, staff, students have tremendous engagement in this process," Petersen told the State Journal Thursday. “I think this is a very thoughtful committee that represents faculty, students, staff and Regents … We’re very proud of the credentials and commitment that people have made to serve on this committee.”

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