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UW to vacate Richland campus 1 year after college classes ended

Richland County administrator accuses UW system of 'shirking their responsibilities' and says end of 75-year agreement means 'potential economic crisis' for the county

A newspaper is pinned to a bulletin board in a hallway. A headline says "Loss of campus is heartbreaking."
A newspaper page hangs on a billboard Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Universities of Wisconsin will vacate a former two-year college in Richland County this summer, despite months of discussions with local officials who once hoped to save the former two-year college. County leaders say they’re now facing a potential “economic crisis.”

Classes at the campus known by locals as UW-Richland ended in July 2023 after enrollment fell to around 60 students. Initially, UW administrators stopped short of saying the campus would close, holding several meetings with county leaders with a goal of redefining the former college.

One of the questions during those discussions was what to do about a 75-year memorandum of agreement that outlines the county’s role in maintaining the county-owned campus buildings and property in exchange for the UW branch campus “to provide an adequate instructional and administrative staff.” That lease is not set to expire until 2042.

Over the past year, some Richland County board members have argued the UW should have to reimburse the county for maintenance costs and lost economic opportunities caused by the closing. The loss estimates ranged from $1.5 million to tens of millions of dollars.

On Tuesday, county officials received a letter from Universities of Wisconsin Vice President for University Relations Jeff Buhrandt, notifying them that UW-Platteville, which oversees the Richland campus, “will completely vacate the Richland County Campus by July 1.”

“While we are disappointed that we were unable to find a path forward, we also know this change can provide significant new opportunities in Richland County,” Buhrandt said.

The letter also notified the county that recent legislation offering $2 million grants to counties where branch campuses are closed was the state’s final offer.

“This potential investment by the State of Wisconsin represents the full consideration of the costs expressed by Richland County,” Buhrandt wrote. 

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Students sit at a table in a small classroom.
Students Jackson Kinney, right, Haley Zumach, center, and Aliyah Sander, left, participate in a class discussion Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A Tuesday press release from Richland County Administrator Candace Pesch accused the UW of “shirking their responsibilities” regarding the lease and associated costs. 

“At no time, under any circumstance, did the legislature indicate that receipt of the $2 million grant would absolve the UW Universities System of their obligations to affected counties,” Pesch said. “Richland County, which had previously relied on the contractual relationship between the parties, is now facing a potential economic crisis due to the Universities’ decision.”

Richland County Board Chair David Turk told WPR the letter “felt like a gut punch.” He said it is “the second time we’ve been blindsided like this,” the first being the 2023 announcement that classes would end.

Last year, former County Board Chair Marty Brewer told WPR he estimated annual utilities costs for electricity, water and sewer services at the Richland Campus would be around $100,000 per year. Turk said utilities costs are not inconsequential to the county.

“Every dollar we have to spend on that kind of stuff to maintain an empty building, while we try to sort out what we’re gonna do with it is money we can’t spend on other programs,” he said.

In the past, the county board had met in closed session to discuss legal options with regard to the lease and ongoing costs, but no suit was filed. Turk said the board is “looking at all options” regarding the UW’s letter but hasn’t made a decision.

“To me personally, it feels very negative that the university could just say, ‘Okay, we’re walking away from this agreement,’” Turk said. “If you can just walk away from it, what value is an agreement?”

A sign shows building names next to arrows.
A sign shows directions around campus Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Other counties take notice of Richland closure

Since the UW’s initial announcement about the Richland campus in 2023, the system has taken action on other two year campuses.

Last fall, Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman announced UW-Milwaukee at Washington County and UW Oshkosh, Fond du Lac would close this coming June. In January, UW-Green Bay Chancellor Michael Alexander announced the university’s campus in Marinette will end in-person classes in May

Counties with investments in campuses have decided against approving multi-million dollar upgrades for buildings until they get assurances from that their campuses won’t be the next to close. 

In Washington County, the county board had wanted to merge the two-year campus with Moraine Park Technical College. Republican lawmakers included money for that plan in the 2023-2025 state budget. But that idea was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, who said he objected to the Legislature singling out one campus when many others were facing fiscal challenges.

Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann told WPR on Wednesday he’s “not surprised at all” by the UW’s notice to Richland County that it will vacate the Richland campus and will not offer any money beyond the $2 million grants.

“But it’s disappointing nonetheless,” Schoemann said. “The old Wisconsin Idea of the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state, it’s on life support, at best with this governor’s administration.”

Schoemann said Evers should heed former UW System President and four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson’s call to create a commission to study the future of higher education in Wisconsin.

Universities of Wisconsin Director of Media Relations Mark Pitsch said each of the pending campus closures are unique and administrators “continue working with local elected, community and business leaders.”