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UW System ending classes at 2 more campuses due to declining enrollment and ‘market realities’

Students will leave UW-Milwaukee at Washington County and UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac by June 2024

A man looks to the side as he speaks into a microphone.
UW System President Jay Rothman speaks Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 during the UW System Board of Regents meeting at UW-Green Bay. Angela Major/WPR

Classes are ending at two more University of Wisconsin System campuses next year and a school in Richland County is officially closing. UW System President Jay Rothman says it’s due to rapidly declining enrollment and part of a plan to realign two-year branch campuses with “market realities.”

In-person classes will end at UW-Milwaukee at Washington County and UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac by June 2024. At the same time, Rothman said UW-Platteville at Richland, which has been without students since May, is officially closing. While the language is different, the effect is the same for the other two campuses.

The announcement came the day after UW-Oshkosh said it was cutting 216 staff positions, and the same day GOP leaders blocked raises included in the state budget from going into effect for more than 30,000 university system employees.

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Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Rothman said the state’s colleges “are undergoing some trying times.”

“We are facing several challenges,” Rothman said. “And the employees at the Universities of Wisconsin are being impacted. Whether it’s layoffs and furloughs, changes at our branch campuses, or uncertainty over their wages, I recognize that it is an extraordinarily difficult time for our employees.”

Students enrolled at the Fond du Lac and Washington County campuses will be able to enroll at the remaining UW System schools, Rothman said.

“The purpose of these actions is to align our branch campuses to current market realities and to prepare for the future,” Rothman said. “I anticipate the conversations with local leaders will conclude by early spring of 2024 with a viable path forward for the remaining branch campuses.”

UW System makes break with Richland Center official

The UW System will also formally end its relationship with UW-Platteville’s branch campus in Richland Center. Rothman announced the end of classes at the campus nearly a year ago, but said the system continued to maintain a presence there.

“And what the next step that we’re taking with my announcement today is to actually officially exit that campus entirely,” Rothman said.

Richland County Board Chair Marty Brewer says he was never told by the UW System about the plan to close the campus, which is owned and maintained by the county.

“We’re shocked, I would say, because I didn’t expect it would come this way,” Brewer said. “I thought we were in an ongoing discussion (with the UW System).”

A sign says the school name.
A sign is displayed Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

County officials have been in talks with the UW System about how to address a 75-year memorandum of agreement outlining the county’s role in maintaining the buildings and property and the UW’s role at the site.

Brewer said one immediate impact for the county will be the UW System no longer paying water, power and heating costs. He estimates that at around $100,000 per year. Some county board members have argued that the UW System should have to reimburse the county for its maintenance costs and lost economic activity from the closing, a loss with estimates that range from $1.5 million to $54 million.

County officials in other parts of Wisconsin have been watching how the UW System approaches two-year campuses, which have generally seen steep enrollment declines since 2010. Major maintenance projects and upgrades have been paused at campuses like UW-Stevens Point at Wausau and UW-Oshkosh Fox Cities, which straddles Winnebago and Outagamie Counties. Officials there have said they won’t make major investments until they get reassurance from the UW System their campuses won’t be the next ones to close.

In Washington County, County Executive Josh Schoemann formed a task force to look for solutions as enrollment at UW-Milwaukee at Washington County has fallen by more than 70 percent since 2010.

The task force recommended merging that campus with the nearby Moraine Park Technical College. The plan was opposed by UW-Milwaukee and the tech college but gained support of Republican lawmakers who included more than $3 million “for the transition of UW-Washington County from a UW-Milwaukee branch campus to a joint Moraine Park Technical College/Washington County operation.” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers removed the directive and funding from the state budget using a line-item veto.

Now, classes will end at the Washington County campus next summer with no immediate plans for what to do with the building and grounds.

In a statement, Schoemann said he understands “the difficulties of making tough decisions that affect a community and it’s students.”

“One thing I learned from navigating such difficulties is that it is essential to keep schools focused on students,” Schoemann said. “I remain wholly committed to keeping students first as we work through this transition, fighting to keep higher education opportunities in our community for the students of today and the future.”

No plans have been announced for the future of the UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac campus, either. On Monday, UW-Oshkosh announced it is cutting 216 staff members through layoffs and retirement buyouts to help close an $18 million budget deficit. The campus will also leave 34 vacant positions open.

No faculty members at UW Oshkosh will lose their jobs as part of those layoffs, according to the university. The layoffs include 12 administrators.

UW Oshkosh Professor of Communication Studies Tony Palmeri told Wisconsin Public Radio he’s never seen morale on campus lower in his 34 years at the school.

“I’ve never seen as many young faculty and staff on our campus wondering if they made the right decision to come here,” Palmeri said. “I’ve never seen as many senior-level, qualified, excellent people taking the early retirement incentive, which I understand why people would do that.”

Palmeri said the UW System has been “systematically underfunded” by state lawmakers and administrators are essentially “taking orders” from the Legislature rather than protesting cuts with a unified voice.

Majority of state universities project budget deficits

Among the state’s 13 universities, 10 were projecting budget deficits this year, including UW-Milwaukee which is facing a deficit of around $18 million.

The UW System has said the deficits are driven by declining enrollment along with a decade-long freeze on residential tuition increases mandated by state lawmakers and reductions in state funding for the schools.

During state budget deliberations, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called for cutting the UW System’s budget by $32 million, which he said equals the amount campuses spend on diversity, equity and inclusion staff and programs. Vos and other Republicans have called DEI political indoctrination that divides students by race.

Rothman has pushed back on those claims, stating DEI is an important part of making universities more accessible and welcoming to students from all backgrounds.

On Tuesday, Vos made good on his promise to block pay raises for more than 30,000 UW System employees until DEI is abolished at state universities.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio staff are employees of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.