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UW Regents Approve Merging System Campuses

System President Ray Cross: Plan Is In Response To Declining Enrollment

President Ray Cross and other regents
Marylee Williams/WPR

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has approved a sweeping restructure plan to merge the system’s two-year colleges with its four-year universities and make changes to UW-Extension.

The regents approved the proposal on a 16-2 voice vote Thursday afternoon at UW-Madison. Tony Evers and Janice Mueller were the only regents to vote against the plan. There were three-plus hours of discussion and comments before the vote.

The restructuring is a response to declining enrollment and an aging population.

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The plan calls for transforming the system’s 13 two-year schools into regional branches of seven of the 13 four-year schools. Students could still earn associate degrees but they would bear the name of the four-year school. Students also would get a wider range of courses to choose from and be able to take third- and fourth-year courses at the branch campuses.

UW-Extension’s divisions would fall under UW-Madison and system administration’s control.

Before the vote some asked for more time to study the plan that became public last month. Mueller requested the vote to be delayed three weeks. But Regent Margaret Farrow said there is no time.

“We’ve got to get going to both survive financially, but to survive; because if it’s non-traditional students or traditional students, we have to continue to attract them.”

Stakeholders have complained about being blindsided when the proposal was unveiled in October by UW System President Ray Cross. But UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said ahead of the vote that everyone knew these challenges were looming.

“I think that it’s valid that there was not … that we did not take this before shared governance to bring this forward because it has been talked about so much extensively before,” Marquis said. “So, it’s about bringing the proposal forward so that we can actually move into having the discussion about the details and the planning.”

Marquis said the enrollment decline is hitting two-year campuses first and the mergers will help keep them open while strengthening the system.

When asked at Thursday’s meeting how the restructure would solve declining enrollment, as projected growth of college-age adults continues to decline, Cross said it wouldn’t.

“What it does do, though, is find ways to give us tools to bring third- and fourth-year coursework to some of these campuses,” he said.

Cross also said the restructure proposal wasn’t politically motivated or requested by lawmakers.

“It’s a rational move in response to demographic data, financial data and other challenges, including revenue and funding challenges that these campuses are facing,” said Cross.

Sean Piette, UW-Stevens Point student government association president, said a lot of students are confused about the merger and they aren’t getting many answers.

Piette, a senior at studying natural resources planning, said he doesn’t support the merger in its current state because he just doesn’t have enough information to feel comfortable moving forward.

“Personally, I’m opposed to it because I don’t want to run into something blind,” he said before the vote. “I like to be prepared for a lot of things. I take that from my scouting background, but I like to be prepared for what I’m going into and I don’t feel anyone is prepared for this.”

Piette said he was disappointed in how this merger was announced and that students and faculty weren’t represented in the decision making.

“I’m really kind of skeptical that this was a decision that was thrown out there as an idea,” he said. “I think this has been worked on for a while.”

Sarah Joslin also opposes the merger. The sophomore studying information sciences attended UW-Marinette before transferring to UW-Green Bay.

She said there’s a lot of value in these institutions for students and the communities that house them.

“I had an easier time going to the professors at Marinette because they were smaller classes, which allowed for more personal interactions during class times,” she said.

Joslin said she found out about the merger through Facebook, and she said she’s disappointed in how this has been handled.

“As a student, it feels like we’re not really considered people,” Joslin said. “We’re considered dollar signs.”

The vote sets a deadline of July 1 for the merger. The board will provide updates at each of its next six monthly meetings.

Map of proposed restructuring. UW System

Editor’s Note: This story was last updated at 3:10 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, with the regents vote. Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Extension and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.