Regents Poised To Vote On UW System Restructuring Plan

If Approved, State's 2-Year Colleges Will Merge With 4-Year Universities

UW-Barron County
Ray Cross (CC-BY-NC)

The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents will vote Thursday on a plan to restructure the state’s higher education system using a blueprint that was unveiled less than 30 days ago. UW System President Ray Cross said the plan is needed to stem declining enrollment at the state’s two-year colleges. But many in the system including high-ranking leadership said they weren’t included in the decision-making process.

On Oct. 11, Cross announced a plan to merge the state’s two-year colleges with its four-year universities. The restructure also holds changes for UW-Extension, which oversees the state’s continuing education division. Finally, it would transfer oversight of the university’s county offices known as Cooperative Extension to UW-Madison.

The news took many by surprise including UW Colleges Chancellor Cathy Sandeen. She said she didn’t see details of the merger until two days before they went public.

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“So, this particular plan really did come together rapidly and I think it was a feeling of urgency that we just need to make a move and do something because of these demographic shifts,” said Sandeen.

Declining birth rates have been slowing the number of high school students preparing for higher education. Since 2010, the number of full-time equivalent students at UW College campuses has dropped by 32 percent.

The trend is worse at individual schools like UW-Marathon County, which saw a loss of 50 percent of its students. Some have said using a 2010 benchmark is misleading, though, because it was a record year for enrollment at the colleges.

While the merger caught many by surprise, the state’s 13 UW College campuses are no stranger to change.

In response to a $5 million cut in state aid in the 2015 state budget, Sandeen reorganized the colleges. She split the college system into four regions, which cut the number of deans and administrative staff. But Sandeen said even with those savings, declining enrollment is draining her division’s reserves. This year, enrollment declined by 5 percent overall at UW Colleges, which means they’ll take in nearly $2 million less in tuition.

“It’s not that we don’t have funds to cover that. We do,” said Sandeen. “But the trend is not good and we have to be serious about it because over time we would deplete those funds.”

Cross said his plan to restructure the UW System isn’t just about anticipating future declines in enrollment. He said by aligning two and four-year campuses, the system will be able to standardize hiring, payroll and budgeting processes and make it easier for students to transfer credits.

“Our goal is to actually create stronger transfer pathways. Our transfer numbers aren’t as good as we think they should be,” he said.

The two-year colleges span from Rice Lake to Janesville and serve many non-traditional students. While staff are employees of the university system, the campuses and buildings are owned by the counties and cities that host them. Richland County Board Chair Jeanetta Kirkpatrick said they spend around $60,000 annually for the UW-Richland and recently took out loans for a new roof and cooling system.

She said the they’ll continue that support despite learning from news reports that their campus would be merged with a university 50 miles away. But Kirkpatrick thinks Wisconsin’s decline in high school graduates should have been considered earlier.

“Those people have been born and have been around for a while,” said Kirkpatrick. “So, if that number is going down we should have calculated that and not had to have this knee-jerk reaction and last minute decision without forethought and discussion and input.”

The planned restructure of the UW System has spurred reaction around the state.

In Sheboygan, city council members passed a resolution this week urging the Board of Regents to reconsider the planned merger of UW-Sheboygan with UW-Green Bay. Council member Ryan Sorenson said students at his campus would be better served being affiliated with the larger research school to the south.

“So, you can get mechanical, electrical, industrial engineering degrees at UW-Milwaukee and access to internships and great partnerships with the school, while UW-Green Bay doesn’t really have a full-fledged engineering school or college there.”

In Menomonie the UW-Stout student government passed two resolutions in response to Cross’s plan. One urged the regents to consider merging the northernmost college, UW-Barron County, which was originally a branch campus of UW-Stout, with their school instead of UW-Eau Claire. The second resolution scolded the UW System for not consulting stakeholders in the process. Student government President Alex Vernon said it goes against what shared governance is supposed to be about.

“I believe that President Cross is making a huge mistake,” said Vernon. “I’m not sure what his intentions are behind this. This just seems like a pretty big risk and a pretty bold move. I would assume that he’s trying to appease the legislators in this but I believe it’s very poor governance and very poor leadership and I’m disappointed.”

But UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt feels critics may be jumping the gun. He said stakeholders around the state will get a seat at the table if regents vote to approve the plan.

“There are thousands of decisions left to be made and I can tell you as one of the chancellors that is responsible for bringing this merger through, that is where we will have great faculty, student governance feedback, support from the Barron County Board, from the community members,” said Schmidt.

In an ironic twist, Cross made news in 2015 for criticizing Schmidt for proposing a list of cost saving ideas for the UW System, which included merging two-year and four-year campuses. The call for proposals was in response to the Legislature’s $300 million cut in state aid and a two-year tuition freeze.

Despite the frustrations over how the latest plan to restructure the UW System was drawn up, there is optimism about how it could increase offerings at the smaller, two-year campuses. Barron County Administrator Jeff French said a marriage of UW-Barron County with UW-Eau Claire could be huge for his region.

“With [UW-Eau Claire] Chancellor Schmidt saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to bring probably a liberal arts or maybe an English major and even part of his business units up here.’ Whoa, that’s a great thing and let’s bring this home,” said French. “Let’s say a student could go three of four years in Rice Lake. Wouldn’t that be a huge benefit for everybody?”

The merger of the two- and four-year campuses and the restructuring of UW-Extension and Cooperative Extension still has to be approved by the Board of Regents but many feel passage is all but guaranteed. Then, the clock starts ticking. Cross and other UW leaders will have seven months to remake the UW System following the plan that went public one month ago.

Map of proposed restructuring. UW System

Editor’s Note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Extension and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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