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Community members brainstorm how to save UW-Richland at town hall meeting

Following pleas to boost state funding for campus, state lawmaker tells audience legislative fix 'will probably lose'

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Community members and local government leaders from around Richland Center are congregated in a room for a town hall
Community members and local government leaders from around Richland Center pitched ideas to prevent the end of college classes at UW-Platteville Richland during a Thursday town hall meeting on campus. In November, UW System President Jay Rothman announced in-person classes for degree-seeking students would cease at the end July 1. Rich Kremer/WPR

After nearly two hours of impassioned pleas to save the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland campus, community members left a Richland Center town hall meeting without hearing much cause for hope.

Emotions were high in a packed conference room at the college long known by locals as UW-Richland on Thursday evening. Members from the crowd of students, residents and local government leaders voiced frustration with the decision to end in-person classes and find new uses for the campus’s buildings. UW System President Jay Rothman announced that plan in November. It came after rapid declines in the school’s enrollment, with the student population falling by 88 percent since 2015.

“Be honest with your language,” said Marnie Dresser of Spring Green. “For one thing, what is currently being proposed is a closure, and I think that is a very bad idea.”

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State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green; State Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc; and UW System Vice President for University Relations Jeff Buhrandt listened quietly as speakers also pitched ideas aimed keeping the campus open.

Those included decoupling the Richland campus from UW-Platteville, which some attendees accused of siphoning prospective students to its main campus to stabilize its own enrollment declines.

Mike Grindeman of Muscoda urged the lawmakers to demand an investigation of UW-Platteville’s oversight of the two-year school.

“And I don’t want this to sound like a threat, but the result is going to be: if you don’t, this is going to end up in court,” Grindeman said. “And I do not want to hear the headline: University of Wisconsin, Platteville accused of looting and cannibalizing University of Wisconsin, Richland in a class action suit.”

The Richland County Board of Supervisors have met in closed session to discuss possible legal options related to its 75-year lease of campus buildings to the UW System.

“I don’t think anyone’s really excited about that,” said county board Vice Chair Shaun-Murphy Lopez of possible legal action. “But I think that when you have a contract and there’s something like this going on, it’s just something you’ve got to look at.”

There were other ideas floated by the crowd. Some suggested allowing area high school students to take college classes there or offering continuing education classes. There were also calls to bring back a dedicated recruiter, to relaunch the college’s international student program, and to create a blue ribbon commission to study the future of the two-year UW schools.

A young girl speaks into a microphone at a town hall meeting aimed at stopping the planned end of college classes at UW-Platteville Richland
Richland Center Resident Stella Woodhouse, age 11, addresses attendees of a town hall meeting aimed at stopping the planned end of college classes at UW-Platteville Richland this summer. Woodhouse fought back tears as she said she no longer think’s she’ll have an opportunity to attend college in her hometown. Rich Kremer/WPR

A coordinated push to prevent the closure of the college has been underway since Rothman announced degree-seeking students leave the campus July 1. Nearly 1,500 people have signed a “Save Our UW-Richland Campus” online petition. Students lobbied Rothman and members of the UW Board of Regents at a December meeting in Madison.

On Dec. 13, the Richland County Board unanimously approved a resolution calling on the UW System to return a full-time recruiter to the Richland campus, negotiate enrollment goals and provide $4 million for the 2023-24 school year to keep the campus functioning.

Near the end of the Thursday meeting, Rep. Kurtz, a member of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, said he’s brought the county’s proposal to fellow members, but said they seemed skeptical about putting more money into a college that enrolled 60 students last fall.

“I could probably persuade a few (JFC members),” Kurtz said. “But I know it would be a fruitless effort, because we would lose. I will do that, I will tell you today that it will probably lose.”

Even if a miracle happened and the $4 million request gets into the budget, Kurtz said, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could remove the money with a veto at the request of the UW System.

The final speaker of the night was 11-year-old Stella Woodhouse of Richland Center. She choked back tears as she said she was expecting to have an opportunity to save money by starting her college career in her hometown.

“I feel like I’m not going to be able to do that anymore,” Woodhouse said. “I feel like I’m going to have to save up a lot more than $375 in the bank.”

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