University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly said Tuesday he's leaving, but that it wasn't because of controversies over the past year.
Reilly is expected to step down by the end of the year or sooner. He will begin his new position advising the American Council on Education in January 2014, before returning to teaching, he said.
“We overcame financial headwinds to build a higher education system that expanded access to college classrooms for Wisconsin families and responded to the needs of our economy for skilled graduates able to compete and succeed in a global economy,” Reilly said in the release.
Reilly has been the UW System president since 2004.
His departure is not without questions over whether a controversial year had an impact.
Reilly was at the center of a legislative storm earlier this year, after revelations that the UW System had stockpiled $650 million in reserves while it was raising tuition by 5.5 percent a year.
The backlash resulted in the Legislature passing a tuition freeze and calls from some for Reilly to step down.
Reilly said Tuesday it wasn't a factor in his decision to step away.
"I really did start talking to the Board [of Regents] President and Vice president at the end of the fall and beginning of the winter [about a transition]," Reilly said at a news conference Tuesday.
"In a nine year span of leadership you have periods that are tumultuous and some that are calm. I think experienced leaders expect that roller-coaster ride along the way."
Lawmakers had mixed reactions to Reilly's tenure, but legislators on both sides of the aisle agreed the next leader needed to make changes.
The next president, which could be in place by spring 2014, needs to be a "street-fighting diplomat," said Rep. Terese Burceau, D-Madison, whose district includes the Madison campus.
"We do need somebody that understand politics and the egos and pressures and everything else but, at the same time, isn't afraid to stand up for the university," she said.
One of Reilly's toughest critics, Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said the next president needed to improve upon a series of missteps, such as the reserves controversy and another in which a state audit revealed the UW System had overpaid employees' health care funds and pensions.
"We need accountability -- badly," said Nass, who leads the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. "I'm optimistic that we can start anew, rebuild the trust that is lacking right now, and move on to make the UW system a great system."
Madison Regent David Walsh says he's been talking to Reilly about an exit for nine months and that the Board didn't ask him to step aside.
"The simple fact is that the history of governing this institution is going to have political tensions and a battle of priorities and that's what we had," said Walsh. "This man survived it, he led during it and we're better for it as leadership. It's that simple."
UW-Madison's new chancellor, Rebecca Blank, weighed in on the resignation with a statement Tuesday.
"Reilly's commitment to higher education has had a tremendously positive impact on our state. He has worked diligently to improve the UW System and make it more responsive to the citizens of Wisconsin," Blank said in the statement.
Blank also added she looked forward to cooperating with other UW System schools to make the transition during what the statement described as a "critical period of transition."
Grace Bolt, a member of the Associated Students of Madison, said the combination of Blank's arrival and a presidential search are a rare opportunity for students to gain a bigger voice.
"We're very sad to see (Reilly) go and that's kind of the end of an era, but it's something where we'll get a fresh start and that's always good," Bolt said.
Gov. Scott Walker told reporters at a public appearance in Milwaukee that he has known about Reilly's plans for a couple of days. Walker's spokesman Tom Evenson said Walker spoke directly with Reilly about his departure.
In a statement, the Governor said the state had "a deep respect and gratitude for Reilly's contributions to the UW System."
Board President Michael Falbo said a national search will begin immediately for Reilly's replacement, in hopes of having a new president by next spring.