MADISON, Wis. — University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly announced his resignation on Tuesday, following a tumultuous six months that saw an angry backlash from the Republican-controlled Legislature over how the university was handling its money.
Reilly has served as president of the 26-campus, 182,000-student, UW System since 2004. He will leave in January to work part-time as an adviser for the American Council on Education and return to teaching.
Reilly, at a news conference to announce his departure, bemoaned what he called the “overheated partisanship in our political culture,” but said he had been thinking of leaving for months. He said the recent tumult in the Legislature, which included the chairman of the Assembly higher education committee calling for his resignation in April, had nothing to do with his decision.
Still, the Republican co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee issued a joint statement saying Reilly’s departure was an “exciting opportunity” for UW.
“They have a chance to start a new a new chapter,” Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said in the statement. “New leadership will go a long way to re-establishing trust that has eroded over the years.”
Reilly, who appeared alongside Board of Regents President Michael Falbo and Vice President Regina Millner, said no regent had asked him to step down.
The search for a new president will begin in coming weeks with the goal of naming a successor in the spring, Falbo said. He said Reilly was a “strong, effective leader for the UW System.”
“The challenges have been formidable, but he has met every one with intelligence, grace, integrity, common sense, a great sense of humor and the occasional poem,” Falbo said, referencing Reilly’s love of poetry.
Reilly cited as his successes an enrollment increase of 9 percent over his tenure, including a 13 percent growth in transfer students and a 124 percent increase in need-based financial aid. He also praised creation of the new flex degree option, which recognizes work experience toward obtaining a degree.
But he also noted challenges, including the partisan political culture, the debate over whether the UW System should remain together or be split, and dealing with the recent recession.
Reilly said his biggest challenge, and proudest moment, was opposing the effort to break the flagship Madison campus apart from the rest of the system in 2011. Then-Madison chancellor Biddy Martin was a strong advocate for the move, but it died in the Legislature despite backing from Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker did not mention that issue in his statement on Reilly’s departure, instead saying the state had “deep respect and gratitude” for Reilly’s contributions. He said Reilly initiated conversations with the state’s economic development agency, leading to a promising partnership with UW, and also thanked him for his work on creating the flex degree option to help working adults.
Many of Reilly’s fiercest critics were Republican lawmakers. That was especially true in recent months after an inquiry by a group of GOP Assembly members, who are also accountants, led to the discovery of nearly $650 million in reserves held by UW campuses.
The building of those reserves came at the same time the university increased tuition the maximum 5.5 percent in each of the previous six years. Reilly had recommended another 2 percent hike in each of the next two years, but the Legislature instead instituted a freeze.
Reilly defended the reserves at an April hearing before a legislative committee, saying they were built up to protect the system as state funding dwindles. He also acknowledged that anger over the accumulated money was, in many ways, justified.
“We’re not angry,” Republican Senate President Mike Ellis said to Reilly at the time. “We’re disgusted.”
Republican Rep. Steve Nass, chairman of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee, called for Reilly to be fired after news of the surplus hit. Reilly also faced upset lawmakers in January when he was forced to explain that a payroll glitch had caused nearly $33 million in benefits overpayments to UW employees.
Reilly, 63, previously worked as chancellor of UW-Extension from July 2000 through August 2004. He was provost and vice chancellor of Extension from 1996 to 2000.
He is a native of New York City and came to Wisconsin from The State University of New York system where he served as associate provost for academic programs.