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A turning point for the UW Colleges

by Noel Radomski, WISCAPE Director and Associate Researcher | May 27, 2015

During this spring’s biennial budget deliberations on the UW System, most of the public's attention has focused on potential savings from the proposed UW System public authority and how the $380 million budget cuts would be distributed to the doctoral and the regional comprehensive universities. Much less attention, however, has focused on the future of the 13, two-year UW Colleges campuses.

Of all the UW System institutions, the proposed budget cuts would have a disproportionate impact on the UW Colleges, because their reserves are significantly lower than those of other UW institutions -- in fact most have zero reserves. The UW Colleges had already made cuts after the last biennial budget; have been instituting tuition freezes longer than other UW System institutions; and are the most dependent on enrollment, tuition, and state support.

What makes matters worse is that there are three additional forces, imposed by UW System leaders, which could decrease the financial stability and quality of the UW Colleges and lead to a turning point in their history -- perhaps even their demise.

  1. The UW System president and Board of Regents decided not to adopt the changes to the UW System’s general purpose revenue and tuition allocation formula that were recommended in the UW System Funding Allocation Working Group Report (2014). If the “equity variable” had been strengthened in the allocation formula, it could have reduced the cuts allocated to the UW Colleges and other resource-poor UW institutions.
  2. Both the UW System president and the UW Colleges/Extension chancellor publicly opposed the budget amendments proposed by Representatives Ed Brooks (R-Reedsburg) and Romain Quinn (R-Rice Lake), which would have exempted the UW Colleges and UW Extension from the biennial budget cuts. If they had supported these legislators’ proposal to hold the UW Colleges harmless, things would be very different.
  3. The third catalyst emerged from the UW Colleges Budget Task Force Report (April 10, 2015), which was co-chaired by the vice chancellor for administration and finance and the provost/vice chancellor for academic affairs, as well as UW Colleges/Extension Chancellor Sandeen’s May 15th decision to advance seven regionalization, standardization, and centralization recommendations as outlined in her Budget Decision Memo (May 15, 2015). These decisions arose from a series of reports initiated and advanced by now UW System President Cross with the Huron Consulting Report (November 18, 2013) and the Repositioning Task Force Report (January 21, 2014).

Finally, as a colleague explained, all of is taking place in the context of a budget crisis in which state leaders have neglected to have transparent and meaningful conversations about the purpose and goals of higher education in Wisconsin -- and absent a similar conversation within UW System leadership about the value of the UW Colleges mission. 

Proposed UW Colleges Reorganization and Opposition

As part of the proposed $380 million UW System budget cut, UW Colleges/Extension Chancellor Sandeen was instructed to reduce $6.7 million in expenses from the UW Colleges budget. Chancellor Sandeen made seven recommendations that are estimated to save $2.6 million. It is expected that Chancellor Sandeen will announce additional decisions to reduce costs after the governor signs the 2015-2017 biennial budget.

A large number of resolutions have been passed against Chancellor Sandeen's proposed reorganization. View a representative list of groups that have approved resolutions.

The resolutions express significant concerns about the proposed reorganization and other actions, including:

  • A reduction in student enrollment, loss of tuition revenue, reduction in classes, and increased in time-to-degree;
  • The diminution of efficiencies;
  • A reduction in community services and erosion of support from city, business, and county leaders;
  • An adverse impact on campus culture and morale;
  • Diminished services, which could lead to a reduction in student recruitment, enrollment, retention, and graduation or successful transfer;
  • A decrease in shared governance and concomitant poor decision-making;
  • The contradiction to the UW Colleges' mission and reduction in academic service to students;
  • Reducing the campuses' ability to provide real-time and in-person support to students, faculty, and instructional academic staff; and
  • Negatively affecting the ability to hire and retain high-quality faculty, instructional academic staff, and academic and university staff.

Possible Vote of No Confidence

In a May 21, 2015 memo, seven UW Colleges academic department chairs initiated a faculty referendum process, as outlined in the UW Colleges Constitution (Section 2.10), which could lead UW Colleges faculty to pursue a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Sandeen. The fact that UW Colleges faculty leaders are considering pursuing this vote is highly unusual and merits significant public attention. The memo explains that the initiative is based on the following concerns about the seven reorganization decisions:

  • They precede the actual announcement of the budget reductions imposed by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC);
  • They do not accurately reflect the substantial, negative impact on the quality of services to students the proposed changes will inflict;
  • They will impede the campuses’ abilities to provide students with information resources, technology assistance, extracurricular and co-curricular support, advising, financial aid support, academic support, and veterans’ services;
  • They will weaken departments' abilities to mentor faculty, monitor the curriculum, assess professional development and instruction, manage student and instructor concerns, support the development of its members, and adequately reflect the diversity of academic disciplines in higher education;
  • They will have a particularly negative impact on low-income students' abilities to access technology in order to complete their academic responsibilities;
  • They place an unethical and unsustainable workload burden on university and academic staff;
  • They would outsource or minimize critical campus functions that will impact the quality of facilities and the substantial investment by counties in the UW Colleges campuses;
  • They are yet another of many, many cuts campuses have endured –- including to information technology, to sections of courses, to instructional academic staff, to library services and collections, to practically every budget item in UW Colleges campus funding;
  • They not include a proportionate cut to the central offices of UW Colleges administration and, instead, would likely increase the number of Madison-located staff at the expense of campuses;
  • They do not reflect the Colleges' mission, which is to effectively provide the first two years of a liberal arts curriculum to students throughout the state of Wisconsin; and
  • They minimally reflect the values articulated by campuses, by departments, by functional units across the Colleges' campuses, and by other groups, who have provided feedback in good faith to the chancellor and the UW System president.

Little Public Attention Beyond the UW Colleges and Local Communities

Unfortunately, the conditions leading to the UW Colleges faculty decision to initiate a vote of no confidence have been overshadowed by several factors, not least the debate over the ill-fated UW System public authority, which took valuable time and attention away from developing a statewide coalition focused exclusively on reducing the proposed $380 million budget cuts.

Several county boards have passed resolutions decrying the proposed cuts to the UW System budget and the impact it will have on their local campuses. However, most UW Colleges campuses are in smaller communities and smaller media markets, which has contributed to their getting less media attention. On the whole, there has been substantially less public dialogue about the likely impact of the proposed budget cuts on the UW Colleges.

Is There an Alternative?

It appears likely that the UW System will receive significant state budget cuts, and the UW Colleges will not be spared. Unlike the comprehensive and doctoral campuses, the UW Colleges cannot raise tuition revenue by increasing the number of non-resident and international undergraduates and graduate/professional students. Non-resident undergraduate students make up only a tiny percentage of UW Colleges' enrollment. The UW Colleges do not offer graduate programs. City, county, and state elected officials view international students as outside the scope of the UW Colleges mission -- these campuses are a destination for place-bound students to complete their college education at reduced cost in their local communities.

One alternative that is garnering public attention is to eliminate the Madison-based UW Colleges central office and staff and then reconnect UW Colleges campuses with their closest UW System comprehensive regional university or doctoral university -- in short, to establish a regional university system.

Unlike Chancellor Sandeen’s proposal which would generate $2.6 million in savings, a regional university system could generate $6 million in savings -- close to the budget cut stipulated by UW System President Ray Cross. As important, the creation of an integrated and regional university system could lead to more academic program collaboration; increases in UW Colleges enrollment; higher rates of student transfers between the UW Colleges and UW System four-year universities; and new ways of designing and delivering instructional, research, and public service opportunities for students, staff, and faculty.

Next Steps

My hope is that those of you who read this will share it with others, learn more about the issues impacting the UW Colleges, and share your views with the UW Colleges chancellor, UW System president, and the UW System Board of Regents. I hope that the media will help inform the public and elected officials by shining a light on the challenges confronting the UW Colleges and future opportunities in a period of state revenue cuts.

A potential vote of no confidence strongly suggests that the current decisions to advance regionalization, standardization, and centralization to address budget cuts have limited support from within the UW Colleges and their local communities. The reorganization decisions emerged when UW System President Cross served as UW Colleges/Extension chancellor, and many individuals now believe that on this important issue President Cross has a perceived or real conflict of interest and an inability to remain objective. The UW System Board of Regents cannot and should not remain on the sidelines, especially if the UW Colleges faculty referendum passes and there is a vote of no confidence.

The UW Colleges campuses play a critical role in attracting and educating a diverse student base, many of whom work in their local communities, and others who transfer and complete undergraduate degrees or even go on to earn master’s or doctoral degrees. There is more than one path to generate savings while strengthening the roles, quality, and relationships of the UW System's two-year colleges, regional comprehensives, and doctoral universities.

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