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Thoughts on the WTCS and UW Colleges/Extension merger discussions

by Noel Radomski, WISCAPE Director and Associate Researcher | Sep 3, 2015

On Tuesday, August 11, 2015, at the request of Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a group of six Wisconsin Republican legislators held an informal, closed-door discussion about merging the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and the University of Wisconsin Colleges and Extension. State and national media have covered the controversial news here, here, here, and here; campus, business, and state technology leaders have expressed their concerns here, here, and here; and two editorials have opined conflicting perspectives here and here. Based on other states’ efforts at merging postsecondary education systems and Wisconsin’s most recent merger effort in the 1970s, I advise the legislators and Governor Walker to consider past experiences before going any further with the merger discussions.

First, looking at other states’ efforts to merge postsecondary systems or make significant changes illustrates the complex and multi-layered political, legal, policy, cultural, historical, and fiscal questions that must be addressed, and addressing these questions takes time. For example, in Oregon it took five years to pass numerous state bills that significantly restructured, reformed, and unified the state’s pre-K through postsecondary education systems. A paper from the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, “Restructuring Public Higher Education Governance to Succeed in a Highly Competitive Environment,” provides an overview of what has taken place in other states. These states have also taken significant time to conduct comprehensive, non-partisan, and objective analyses; engage in multiple public forums; draft legislation; and gather public input before making changes to their systems.  

Second, it is important to look to Wisconsin’s past. This is not the first time that Wisconsin has discussed merging its public postsecondary education systems -- in fact, it has already happened with the 1971 decision to merge the Wisconsin State Universities (WSU) and the University of Wisconsin (UW) systems. However, as with other states this decision evolved through a significant amount of time and public, legislative, and gubernatorial input. Although discussion of merging WSU and UW popped up during the 1940s through the 1960s, it was not until January 23, 1969, when the merger question gained momentum after Governor Warren Knowles (R) created the Special Committee on Education. The Committee’s charge was to study Wisconsin’s financial and administrative relationships with education at all levels and submit a report to Governor Knowles. The Committee became known as The Governor’s Commission on Education and ultimately the Kellett Commission, named after the Committee’s chair, William R. Kellett. The Kellett Commission worked for more than two years before it submitted its final report: beforehand, more than 600 citizen volunteers and 3,000 students and educational/public policy experts provided testimony, and public forums where convened across the state. This was just the start of the process.

Merger legislation was not introduced before Governor Knowles completed his term. It was Governor Patrick Lucey (D) who introduced merger legislation, which the legislature approved to create the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Though this initiated the merger of the former University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Universities, even then, the process was not complete.

The legislation required the creation of a Merger Implementation Study Committee, which was charged with studying and making recommendations to the Board of Regents and the legislature. On July 31, 1973, the Merger Implementation Study Committee submitted its report. Even then, the process was not complete.

During the April 1974 Special Session, the legislature approved Senate Bill 2 as Chapter 335, Laws of 1973, which merged state statute chapter 36 (University of Wisconsin) and state statute chapter 37 (Wisconsin State Universities). Finally, on July 3, 1974, Governor Lucey completed his veto message and made the merger official.

And what about now?

On August 11, it was announced that a small group of Republican legislators were meeting behind closed doors to discuss merging the WTCS and UW Colleges/Extension. This brings up important questions about transparency, open government, and accountability, and it also suggests a lack of understanding of the relationship, fit, and unique missions of WTCS and UW Colleges/Extension. (To better understand the history, politics, and complexity of the two systems, see Lana Snider’s 1999 article, “The History and Development of the Two-Year Colleges in Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Colleges and the Wisconsin Technical College System.”)

Unfortunately, this episode has heightened the already uneasy relationship between state government and Wisconsin’s public higher education communities. To some, the closed nature of these discussions have reignited their disappointment and frustration with the Wisconsin 2015-2017 biennial budget process, when unnamed legislators introduced and the governor approved eliminating select tenure and shared governance provisions in state statute Chapter 36. As of September 3, the handful of Republican legislators who participated in the merger discussions have not publicly stated the outcome of the discussions, nor have they stated their intentions about next steps.

Looking at past experience, both in Wisconsin and in other states, it is critical that legislators conduct a thorough, objective analysis and seek extensive public input before even considering a merger of Wisconsin’s two, two-year college systems. Many Wisconsin citizens have called for the creation of a Wisconsin citizen’s blue ribbon commission on the future of public higher education in our state. The citizen’s blue ribbon commission must be non-partisan, objective, and transparent. It should not only address whether to merge WTCS and UW Colleges/Extension but also examine the role and future of public higher education in our state more broadly.

The idea of a blue ribbon commission emerged during two regional forums on the future of Wisconsin public higher education and had broad support from the business, nonprofit, education, and civic leaders who attended these events. (For more information on these forums, which were convened by WISCAPE along with the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters and the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, read a two-page summary from the events.)

Several editorials have also advocated for the a blue ribbon commission, including in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Capital Times, and business leaders have publicly endorsed the idea here, here, and here. Along the same lines, the Wisconsin Technology Council has approved a resolution that establishes principles to guide constructive debate on the future of higher education in Wisconsin and last week released a two-page document outlining these principles.

It has been 45 years since Wisconsin last studied the purpose and roles of higher education. Since that time significant forces have impacted Wisconsin’s K-12 and postsecondary education sectors: rapid advances in technology resulting in new pedagogical approaches; exponential increases in college costs and shifting the burden of these costs from the state to ​students; escalating student loan debt; establishment of public, private, and for-profit colleges and universities; demographic changes; and competition for state revenue with other public priorities such as Medicaid, transportation, corrections, and K-12 education.

Is the time ripe for the creation of a citizen’s blue ribbon commission on the future of Wisconsin public higher education? The answer is yes.

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  1. Anne
    If it wasn't broken...why must the system be "fixed."

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