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On October 8, 1971, eight contentious months after its introduction, Governor Patrick Lucey signed the bill merging the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Universities into the University of Wisconsin System (the merger became effective on October 12).
John Weaver, who had been president of the University of Wisconsin since January, became the first president of the new system. Although merger was not completed until 1974, from 1971 on there was a president of the UW System and chancellors for the individual campuses.
John Weaver was born on May 21, 1915, in Evanston Illinois. His father, Andrew T. Weaver, was a professor of speech at Wisconsin from 1918 to 1961, and John graduated from the University of Wisconsin High School and then received his AB (1936), AM (1937), and PhD (1942), all in geography, from the University of Wisconsin. From 1940-1942 he was on the staff of the American Geographical Society, from 1942-1944 a researcher for the Division of Geography and Cartography of the U. S. Department of State, and from 1944-1946 an Arctic intelligence officer in the Navy. Weaver taught geography at the University of Minnesota from 1946-1955, then became dean of the College of Arts and Science at Kansas State University (1955-1957). He left Kansas State to become dean of the Graduate College at the University of Nebraska (1957-1961), vice president for research and dean of the Graduate College at the University of Iowa (1961-1964), and vice president for academic affairs at The Ohio State University (1964-1966). From 1966 to 1970, Weaver served as president of the University of Missouri System. On October 27, 1970, the regents elected Weaver president of the University of Wisconsin. and he took office officially in January 1971. When the University of Wisconsin System was created in October of that year, Weaver became its first president. Weaver retired from UW System as of June 30, 1977, and moved to Los Angeles where he was a distinguished professor of geography at the University of Southern California and the first executive director of the Annenberg Center for the Study of the American Experience. He died in Rancho Palos Verdes, California on March 10, 1995.
H. Edwin Young was born in Bonne Bay, Newfoundland, Canada on May 3, 1917. He received his BA (1940) from the University of Maine and his MA (1942) and PhD (1950) in economics from the University of Wisconsin. Young began as an instructor in economics at Wisconsin in 1947 and became a full professor in 1955. During 1951/52 he was director of the university’s School for Workers, and he chaired the Department of Economics from 1953 until 1961 when he became dean of the College of Letters and Science. In 1965 he left Wisconsin to become president of the University of Maine. In July 1968 Young returned to Wisconsin as vice president of the university and professor of economics, and in September he was appointed chancellor of the Madison campus. In July 1977, he became president of the UW System and served in that capacity until his retirement in January 1980. He resides in Madison.
Robert O’Neil was born on October 16, 1934, in Boston, Massachusetts. He received his AB (1956), AM (1957), and LLB (1961) degrees from Harvard University. He taught law at the University of California, Berkeley from 1963 to 1967 then served as a law professor and executive assistant to the president at SUNY-Buffalo before returning to teaching at Berkeley from 1969-71. From 1972-1973 O’Neil was vice president and provost for academic affairs at the University of Cincinnati, and from 1973-1975 executive vice president for academic affairs there. In 1975 O’Neil became vice president of the Bloomington campus of Indiana University. In December 1979 the regents appointed O’Neil president of the University of Wisconsin System, and he took office on February 1, 1980. In January 1985 O’Neil announced that he would leave Wisconsin to assume the presidency of the University of Virginia as of September 1. Katharine Lyall was acting president until Kenneth Shaw assumed office. O’Neill retired as president at Virginia in 1990 and became the founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression there. Currently he is director of the center and a professor of law emeritus at Virginia.
Kenneth Shaw was born in Granite City, Illinois on January 31, 1939. He received a BS from Illinois State University (1961), an EdM from the University of Illinois (1963), and a PhD (1966) in education from Purdue University. Shaw began his career as a teacher at Rich Township High School in Park Forest, Illinois, then went to Illinois State University as an instructor and later assistant to the president. From 1966 to 1977, Shaw was vice president and dean of Towson State University. He left Towson in 1977 to become president of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and in 1979 he became chancellor of the Southern Illinois University System. The Board of Regents appointed Shaw president of the University of Wisconsin System on September 18, 1985, and he took office on February 1, 1986. Shaw left Wisconsin in August 1991 to become chancellor of Syracuse University. He retired as chancellor there on July 31, 2004.
Katharine Culbert Lyall was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on April 26, 1941. She received a BA in economics from Cornell University (1963), an MBA from New York University (1965), and a PhD (1969) in economics from Cornell. Lyall was an economist at Chase Manhattan Bank from 1963-1965, then went to Syracuse University as an assistant professor of economics from 1969-1972. From 1972-1977 she was a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University. Lyall left Johns Hopkins to spend 1977-1979 as a deputy assistant secretary for policy development and research in the Office of Economic Affairs of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, then returned to Hopkins from 1979-1981 as director of the graduate program in public policy. In 1981 Lyall became vice president for academic affairs of the UW System, and she served as acting president in 1985/86 during the search for Robert O’Neil’s successor. When Kenneth Shaw left for Syracuse in August 1991, Lyall was named acting president, and she became president on April 1, 1992. Lyall announced her retirement on February 4, 2004, effective September 1. She will spend the next year as a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, California.
On July 29, 2004, the Board of Regents approved the appointment of Kevin Reilly, chancellor of UW-Extension, as the sixth president of the UW System, to begin in September. Reilly was born on December 22, 1949, in New York City. He received a BA from the University of Notre Dame (1971) and an MA (1974) and PhD (1979) from the University of Minnesota, all in English. He was assistant director and director of the National Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction for the New York State Board of Regents from 1979-1984, director of Teaching and Beyond: Career Opportunities for PhDs from 1983-84, and director of the Division of College and University Education for the New York State Board of Regents from 1984-1992. Reilly was Associate Provost for Academic Programs for the State University of New York System from 1992 to 1996 and Interim Secretary of the SUNY System in 1995-1996. Reilly was appointed provost and vice chancellor of UW-Extension in 1996 and chancellor in 2000. On July 30, 2013 Reilly announced that he would step down in January 2014 to serve as a presidential advisor for leadership with the American Council on Education and return to teaching. For more information on Emeritus President Reilly, please visit this page.
Richard J. Telfer, who was then Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, served as interim Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin System until a permanent replacement for Kevin Reilly was named. Telfer earned his bachelor’s degree in speech/English and a master’s degree in secondary education/reading improvement from Central Michigan University. He received his PhD in curriculum and instruction from UW-Madison in 1984. He served in many capacities at UW-Whitewater beginning in 1985 and was appointed Chancellor in 2007. Telfer retired as Chancellor of UW-Whitewater as of June 30, 2015.
On January 9, 2014, the Board of Regents approved the appointment of Raymond W. Cross, chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, as the next UW System President. Cross took office on February 17, 2014. Cross received a BS in technical education from Ferris State University in 1978, an MS in industrial education from Central Michigan University in 1981, and a PhD in college and university administration from Michigan State University in 1991. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science by Colgate University in 2007. From 1967-70, Cross served with the U.S. Army and was awarded four medals for his service in Vietnam. After a time in the private sector, Cross served as a faculty member and department head at Ferris State University from 1977-1992. From 1992-1998 he served as president of Northwest Technical College (Bemidji, MN), and from 1998-2011 he was president of Morrisville State College. Cross became chancellor of UW Colleges and UW Extension on February 7, 2011.
Tommy Thompson was named interim UW System president in July 2020, to help guide the university through the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2022, the Board of Regents removed the “interim” designation from Thompson’s title, officially making Thompson the eighth president of the UW System. A native of Elroy, Wisconsin, Thompson was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1966 and became minority leader in 1981. He won election as governor in 1986 and won an unprecedented four terms, which makes him the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history. As governor, he remained committed to a strong university system, faculty research, and the Wisconsin Idea. He stepped down during his fourth term to become United States Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush, a role where he oversaw an increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health and enhanced local public health preparedness. Thompson earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Michael Falbo was named interim president of the UW System by the Board of Regents to serve between Thompson’s resignation on March 18, 2022 and the start date of Thompson’s successor, Jay O. Rothman, on June 1, 2022. Falbo was appointed as a Regent on the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents in 2004 and served until 2015. He was elected by the Board to positions of vice president (2012–2013) and president (2013–2015) during his term. He is former chairman and chief executive officer of State Financial Services Corporation, acquired by Associated Banc-Corp of Green Bay in 2005, part of a successful four-decade career in the banking industry. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Business and Accounting from the University of Wisconsin–Parkside and is also a graduate of the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is a veteran of the United States Army, Vietnam Medic Corps.
For a history of the merger, which had been talked about for years, see Volume 4, Chapter 9 “The UW System Merger” of The University of Wisconsin: A History, available electronically through the University of Wisconsin Collection.
The University Archives holds records from the administrations of John Weaver, Edwin Young, Robert O’Neil, and Kenneth Shaw and contains oral histories with John Weaver, Edwin Young, and Robert O’Neil.
For the presidents and chancellors of the University of Wisconsin prior to John Weaver, and the chancellors of the Madison campus from 1963 on, see Chancellors and Presidents of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.