The University of Wisconsin System is paying its former president his full monthly salary to perform a list of tasks, including making recommendations on the selection process for high-profile leadership searches.

Former System President Ray Cross resigned June 30, but stayed on as a consultant through Sept. 30 to help interim System President Tommy Thompson transition into the role.

UW Board of Regents President Drew Petersen agreed to pay Cross his full monthly salary, $43,750, in July, August and September. The payments come at a time when the System plans to lay off an untold number of its administrative employees and campuses have furloughed thousands of workers.

The agreement notes that Cross must take one furlough day for each month of the contract, just as his UW System administration colleagues are doing through the end of June 2021. System spokesman Mark Pitsch said the three furlough days will be deducted from the $131,250 contract, reducing Cross' total pay by about $6,000.

The contract was released to the Wisconsin State Journal under the state's public records law. A separate request made in early August for invoices, calendars or written correspondence indicating the number of hours Cross has worked has not yet been fulfilled, though Pitsch said Cross is working full-time, which is why he's receiving his full-time pay.

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Neither Cross nor Petersen responded to the newspaper's interview request. Pitsch answered questions on their behalf by email.

Cross' contract calls for him to develop recommendations related to the selection process for System president, chancellors, vice chancellors and UW System senior leadership positions. A search for Cross' successor collapsed in June after the lone finalist withdrew, citing "process issues."

Petersen spearheaded board policy changes to leadership searches a few years ago, which led to a cap on the number of people who can serve on a chancellor search committee. Though the new changes made no similar restriction for presidential search committees, Petersen appointed a small group last fall to identify the next System president, a move that broke tradition because no faculty nor staff members were included on the committee. Public opposition to the search process mounted for months and concluded in the failed search over the summer.

Asked what aspects of the search process Petersen sees needing revision, Pitsch said Petersen is seeking Cross' advice on this topic in general.

Cross' contract also requires him to work with Wisconsin's higher education community to create pathways for people to earn college degrees and develop a plan to increase diversity of students and employees of color.

Though not outlined in the contract, Cross has focused his time on researching and developing COVID-19 testing proposals, Pitsch said. He has also provided general guidance on "numerous" topics and been "consistently present" in leadership meetings related to COVID-19 planning.

"It was truly extraordinary by all accounts of those who worked with him daily in the Operation Center at Van Hise Hall," Pitsch said.

Exit packages

Payouts to departing university leaders have long attracted scrutiny.

Most recently, the System agreed to pay former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper at her chancellor's salary over an eight-month period last year — about $162,000 — as she prepared to return to a full teaching schedule last fall at a reduced salary that was still 50% more than what the department chairwoman earned. Just before classes started, Kopper was granted a paid medical leave. She retired in January 2020.

State Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, one of the System's most vocal critics, called Kopper's exit package a "taxpayer-funded scam."

A more typical exit package, according to higher education experts, is what Cross' predecessor, Kevin Reilly, received after stepping down as System president in 2013. He earned $104,000 annually, about a quarter of his annual president's salary, teaching part-time at UW-Madison for several years. The salary reflected the average pay of professors in the two departments in which he taught.

George Mason University professor Judith Wilde, who has written extensively about college leaders and the "platinum parachutes" they receive after leaving the job, reviewed Cross' contract at the request of the State Journal. She said she was "not going to complain about this one" in light of what some other universities have arranged for outgoing leaders in recent years.

She pointed to Auburn University and Michigan State University, both of which provided former presidents who left mid-contract with millions of dollars more than what their initial agreements stipulated.

"Given that kind of context, when you look at what former President Cross is getting, it is really quite reasonable," she said. "He's getting three months at his former salary to complete three deliverables. He has to actually do something and present it in writing."

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