Calls For Back-Office Reforms Leaves Some UW Staff Workers On Edge

UW System President Says He Wants To 'Streamline' Operations

UW-La Crosse custodian Paul Lacoste cleans a vent on campus. He's one of the thousands of back-office staff within the UW-System. Photo: Maureen McCollum/WPR.

Before Gov. Scott Walker proposed cutting funding for the University of Wisconsin System by $300 million, university leaders were already trying to find ways to save money through overhauling business practices.

Back-office staff workers perform duties that essentially keep the UW System a well-oiled machine. They’re the people who work in payroll and the IT department. They’re the maintenance crew who empty the trash in the classrooms and vacuum the hallways.

These non-instructional campus employees often feel nervous when discussions about budget cuts and creating efficiencies come up. And recently, UW System President Ray Cross laid out a number of proposals that included an analysis of “back-office” operations.

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Denise Ehren, chairwoman of UW-Whitewater’s University Staff Council and Recreational Sports office manager, said morale is low right now. She said some employees are looking to retire and others are afraid that they’re replaceable.

“Like, ‘We’ll never be those people that are prized employees, because we only provide support. We’re not the people on stage that are visible every day. We’re the people in the background,’” said Ehren.

Ehren said it’s good that the UW System wants to take a hard look at business practices, and said there’s always room for improvement. But she said staff also feel like they need to protect themselves and their jobs right now.

Regardless, Ehren says any business decision should have a limited impact on the students.

“That’s kind of really the goal overall. We’re here to help them. We’re here to help them learn and succeed in the world. We need to do that as painlessly as possible,” said Ehren.

The back-office analysis is underway throughout the UW System. President Ray Cross said he’s trying to show the public and legislators that it’s responsible and can be held accountable.

“Should we do what we can to reduce costs and to drive our savings into the classroom for the benefit of students and their families and the public? Yes. It’s hard to argue with these outcomes,” he said.

Cross has talked about “streamlining business operations,” but said it’s too early to say if this will result in layoffs. He said it could mean moving people into other positions or even approaching purchasing differently.

Cross used to head up UW Colleges and UW Extension, which is often looked to as the poster child of efficiencies within the System. For its 13 campuses and online education program, it has one centralized financial aid office, one registrar’s office, and is currently creating one human resources department.

Vice Chancellor for Administrative and Financial Services Steve Wildeck said it’s yet to be seen if the Colleges and Extension model can be duplicated on a system-wide level and is easier said than done. Plus, he said, UW System administration is already quite lean.

“I certainly support the president’s intent to review major functions, to make sure we’re not duplicating efforts across the System and across our institutions that perhaps don’t need to be done on the ground many times over locally when it can be done once in a consolidated unit,” said Wildeck.

The UW System is working with Chicago-based Huron Consulting Group on the effort to find efficiencies and savings. Through this process, UW System predicts it will spend up to $322,000 in consulting fees to take a hard look at System administration. Huron is also working with several other UW campuses.

Cross said he hopes to present recommendations on business practices in four to six months.

Editor’s Note: This story is the final part of a three-part series on possible reforms within the University of Wisconsin System.