from Wisconsin State Journal, April 14, 2005

Students crash UW faculty Q&A

by Karen Rivedal

A handful of students with no tickets for the event but plenty of questions and complaints were Kevin Reilly's toughest critics Wednesday at a luncheon speech for UW- Madison faculty and staff.

Things threatened to get derailed early when an organizer of the event told the students they had to give up their seats at a table near the front of the room unless they bought a lunch and put on name tags like the other attendees.

The organizer, Jeffrey Hamm, who's an assistant dean in the School of Education, said there was only enough space at the tables for ticket holders. He invited the students to take some chairs along the perimeter of the room where they could listen to Reilly's talk with other observers who weren't lunching.

But the students said they had a right to sit where they were and pose questions to Reilly, who is finishing up his first academic year as president of the 26-campus University of Wisconsin System.

"I paid $20,000 to be here this year," said UW-Madison senior Christina Vega- Westhoff, referring to her out- of-state tuition bill.

After a bit of a standoff, the seating crisis was defused when another staffer said she would bring in an extra table to accommodate any remaining ticket-holders. Then Reilly gave his talk, speaking for 40 minutes about building public support for the System, including the need for more state tax dollars, before taking questions.

The first hand up - or at least the first person Reilly recognized - was a student. Sophomore Brandon Walker earned some gasps and laughs from the crowd when he asked if Reilly would fire UW- Madison Chancellor John Wiley if racial diversity on the mostly white campus doesn't improve according to the goals set in the System's long- standing Plan 2008.

Reilly said no.

While noting that System leaders, including himself and all the chancellors, are graded on diversity improvements in their performance reviews, he said it was only one part of their job descriptions.

"Do I think (improved diversity) is any one person's responsibility?" he said. "No."

The next comment from a student came from sophomore Ryan Sarafolean, a member of the student government who said Reilly should be a stronger advocate for keeping tuition low after double-digit increases the past two years.

Sarafolean reminded Reilly that he had just told the students, in an informal chat before the speech, that ideally, tuition would be free.

"But we don't live in an ideal world," Reilly said, noting that his goal is to keep tuition "as low as possible for the general populace" and lower still for students from poor families through increased financial aid.

In answer to questions from faculty and staff, Reilly predicted the System in five years would be "in a better place" financially than it is now, after a $250 million cut in the current two-year budget. And he said the System would continue to lobby for the domestic partner benefits proposed by Gov. Jim Doyle in the next budget, even though Assembly Speaker John Gard has already told him that "it won't pass."

"It's important because, first, it's basic human fairness," Reilly said, "and secondly, it's a competitive issue for us."

Afterward, Reilly lingered as most of the room emptied to talk further with the students. He spent at least a half-hour answering more of their questions and further explaining what he could and couldn't do as System leader.

For instance, he told them he couldn't accept their invitation to join them for a march to the Capitol on April 21 to ask for lower tuition and better benefits for teaching assistants, because he said his efforts would be better spent meeting with lawmakers directly.

That left some students unsatisfied, despite their mostly polite and friendly demeanor with him one-on-one.

"He's wishy-washy," said student Josh Healey. "I like his general themes, but we need a strong advocate. When we go up to the Capitol (to lobby), they don't listen to us."

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