After a national search, the University of Wisconsin System chose a new president from inside, elevating Ray Cross to be the seventh person to lead the System in its history.

Cross brings decades of academic leadership to the job along with a diverse life story: Michigan farm boy, Vietnam veteran, small-business owner and engineer.

“I think he has a feeling in his bones for what the System is and what it was and what it can be in the future,” said Tom Loftus, formerly a state legislator, U.S. ambassador to Norway and member of the UW Board of Regents, when Cross was announced as a finalist for the

job.

Michael Falbo, Regents president and chairman of the committee that chose Cross, pointed to his diverse background as a prime reason for the hire.

“He brings both outside perspective and inside expertise,” Falbo said in a statement. “He has led one of our largest UW institutions, so he knows how things work, and I am confident that he will hit the ground running. At the same time, the majority of his experience is elsewhere, so he brings fresh insights and many innovative ideas.”

Cross, chancellor since 2011 of UW Colleges and UW-Extension, got the nod in a closed Board of Regents meeting Thursday, ending a search process that began in August to find a successor to Kevin Reilly, who stepped down in December after nine years as president.

Cross will earn $525,000, according to System spokesman David Giroux.

The 66-year-old Cross follows the same path to the job as Reilly, who also was selected as president after serving as UW-Extension chancellor.

Reilly’s last year was particularly difficult, with the System’s relationship with the Republican-controlled state Legislature reaching a level of acrimony unseen in decades, according to some. It was widely believed the Regents would look outside the System for Reilly’s replacement, perhaps to a new president from the political or business world.

Cross won over top campus leaders with an energetic presentation — especially on Monday, when all three finalists for the job were in town for interviews — coupled with a history of innovative educational ideas and harmonious relationships with top Republicans at the Capitol.

“During the search process, Ray stressed his desire to build relationships and trust with lawmakers and the citizens of Wisconsin through a commitment to openness and transparency,” said Rebecca Blank, UW-Madison chancellor, in a statement. “I am confident that Ray has the skills and the drive to succeed in his approach.”

Cross has been in Wisconsin for three years following a long academic career that included running a community college in Bemidji, Minn., and a small college in Morrisville, N.Y. Here, he’s consistently made headlines — and powerful friends in the Republican-controlled state Legislature — as the champion for the System’s new flexible degree option.

The flexible degree program for working adults went live last week as the first of its kind by a public university system.

Gov. Scott Walker appeared with Cross and other university leaders at a June 2012 public rollout for the degree programs. Walker has consistently supported the flexible degrees ever since and praised the choice of Cross to lead the System.

“He has a unique combination of experience and drive for innovation,” Walker said in a statement Thursday. “Ray’s leadership and collaboration skills will help improve the excellence of higher education in Wisconsin.”

Bouquets poured in from other legislative leaders of both parties, including Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, an often-strident critic of the System who is chairman of the state Assembly’s committee on higher education.

“I trust Ray Cross and believe he offers the right leadership at a critical time in the history of the UW System,” Nass said in a statement. “While we won’t agree on every issue, I know that he will be a man of his word and will always prioritize the best interests of Wisconsin families.”

On Monday, Cross went second in a series of three “meet the candidate” town hall-style teleconferences with System staffers throughout the state. Whereas the other finalists — Robert King and Peter Garland — spoke mostly in general terms about the problems and possible solutions in the System, Cross gave a detailed diagnosis of what he believes needs fixing and ideas for how to do it.

He pledged to start mending political fences with an immediate listening tour to all corners of the state to meet with the public and politicians of all stripes at every level. He promised to start hammering out the next two-year budget soon — he starts his new job in mid-February — and to have a draft to the governor’s office by August.

He told staffers he’d ask lawmakers to restore funding at least to levels in Walker’s original budget proposal last session before it was gutted as part of lawmakers’ fury with the System over revelations it was holding about $650 million in unrestricted cash reserves. He vowed to ask for flexibility in hiring and benefits asked for in the last session but denied by lawmakers. He said he’d work to fund pay raises for faculty and staffers.

He vowed to be “excessively transparent” with the System’s financial information and commit to a stronger system of data collection and number crunching to improve efficiency.

His specific ideas and policy prescriptions helped win over System chancellors at a different Monday meeting.

“I’ve seen some internal candidates very lackadaisical and assume everybody knows and likes them,” said Joe Gow, UW-La Crosse chancellor. “Ray said I need to go in there and prove that I’ve done my homework and I know the challenges and how to address them.”

Cross told staffers on Monday that he hadn’t sought the job, jokingly reminding people of an August State Journal interview in which he declined any interest and said the thought of his candidacy must have been cooked up by someone “smoking dope or something.” Since then, others have won him over to the idea and he’s fully committed.

“I’m in this with both feet,” he said.

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