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Reflections on the proposed UW Colleges and UW-Extension restructuring

by Noel Radomski, WISCAPE Managing Director | Oct 13, 2017

On October 11, 2017, President Ray Cross announced a proposal to restructure UW Colleges and UW-Extension to “…improve student access and success, increase efficiency and save resources, and better align with Wisconsin’s future workforce needs.” The proposal calls for the integration of the UW Colleges campuses into UW four-year institutions and assigning UW​-Extension divisions to UW-Madison and UW System ​administration. ​This is not the first time someone, such as John Torinus, has suggested a regional approach to Wisconsin’s public postsecondary education. Below are some reflections aimed at contributing to the public dialogue.

Good Ideas

The proposal to integrate the UW Colleges campuses into UW four-year institutions is interesting, and it has the potential to stem the decline in enrollment at the UW Colleges (future branches campuses), the UW’s four-year regional universities, and UW-Milwaukee​; ​facilitate transfer​; and improve the number and success of transfer students. The probability of meeting the proposal’s stated goals will increase if adequate time and resources are provided for the planning, adoption, and implementation of the proposal. The proposal could fix the problems caused by the recent, hastily planned and executed regionalization of the UW Colleges. Hopefully, a stronger focus on local control and a regional focus will be the twin pillars driving the future of the branch campuses and regional universities.

The proposal to move Cooperative Extension to UW-Madison is timely and​ could pay great dividends. If enacted, it could rekindle the relationship ​between the state’s land grant institution and ​its citizens, agricultural sectors, local and start-up businesses, established businesses, targeted industry clusters, community-based organizations, governments, K-12 districts, and others. It takes us back to the past: UW Cooperative was part of UW-Madison until ​they were divorced in the mid-1960s. Though it was yanked from UW-Madison with the best of intentions​ -- the expectation that a large infusion of federal and philanthropic funding would be provided to address Wisconsin’s urban renewal and the war on poverty​ -- these never came to fruition due to federal monies being diverted to the Vietnam War. Now, with this proposal, county agents will once again serve as a direct bridge and translator between UW-Madison faculty, staff, and students and the communities they serve.

Constructive Comments, Questions, and Ideas

  1. UW campus administrators, faculty, academic staff, university staff, students, civic business leaders, and the fourth estate were not informed of the proposal to restructure the UW System until they read the October 11 press release announcing it. ​Though individuals can now submit questions about ​the proposal through a web page, ​at a minimum, President Cross and the UW System Board of Regents should also convene a series of open community hearings with Q&A sessions across the state. ​In addition, they should conduct an informational session at a UW System Board of Regents meeting before the Board votes on the proposal. The approval and implementation date, therefore, need to be extended. The idea of approving the restructuring proposal at a November 2017, UW System Board of Regents meeting is folly, as is a July 1, 2018, implementation date.
  2. The premise that Wisconsin’s current and projected high school graduates is contributing and will lead to more enrollment declines is highly questionable and must be revisited. The December 2016 report, Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates, by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), shows that the number of Wisconsin high school graduates will be stable for a number of years, and then slowly decline. However, if you dive into the recent and projected number of Wisconsin high school graduates, you will find that the number of white high school graduates is declining, and the number of Latinx and (to a lesser extent) black high school graduates is increasing. Many UW System institutions have already made significant changes to their programs that better serve the increasing number of underrepresented students enrolling, persisting, learning, and succeeding in their institutions. It is those youth who will be tomorrow’s civic leaders, employees, and business owners, if they have more than a high school diploma or GED. The previous hope that international students will either halt enrollment declines or provide enough tuition revenue to cover for the loss of domestic student tuition is not proving true for most of the UW Colleges and regional comprehensive universities. UW-Madison is the exception.
  3. The proposal to move three UW Extension divisions to UW System administration is highly suspect and identification of better placements should proceed immediately. Is the role of UW System administration to run divisions and programs?
  4. An especially challenging question is the future of Broadcasting and Media Innovations (BAMI), including Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio. Licensing questions and restrictions, the current role of the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board, and campuses where stations and transmitters are located need to be consulted.
  5. The UW Extension Division of Business and Entrepreneurship, which includes the Small Business Development Centers, should be transferred to the regional universities and thusheld more accountable to their communities and Wisconsin’s regional economic development entities.The SBDC’s are already located at eleven UW System four-year and doctoral universities.
  6. Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning (CEOEL) should be reconfigured, not housed at UW System administration. Once the UW Colleges become branch campuses of a regional university, then it is their faculty who will design, deliver, and modify the course curriculum, not UW System administration. Will CEOEL become a production and distribution service unit? Will the branch campuses and the regional university have the expertise and equipment needed to design, deliver, and improve for-credit online courses and degree programs? The same question applies to the UW Flex Option program. What accreditation problems will emerge if CEOEL’s academic programs are housed at UW System administration? What about the stated goal of increasing enrollment, cost savings, and efficiencies at the future branch campuses and regional universities? Won’t UW-Stevens Point and her branch campuses​ -- both of which are accredited -- want to design and deliver more for-credit courses and degree programs, non-credit courses and programs, badges, certificates and other educational credentials that meet the needs of their region and that generate tuition and program revenue?
  7. The proposal does not offer any opportunities for two regional universities that are wrestling with enrollment challenges: UW-Superior and UW-Parkside. Also, UW-Stout and UW-La Crosse are not included in the proposal. Why not?

A Future Opportunity

Between 1940 and 1970, Wisconsin has convened a number of legislative studies, blue ribbon commissions, campus and systems’ study committees, and other groups ​to study and make recommendations ​for improving Wisconsin’s postsecondary education landscape. Sometimes they were driven by significant enrollment increases, such as the 1945 GI Bill. In other cases they were driv​en by calls for efficiencies, program and degree redundancies, enrollment declines, financial considerations, and many other state concerns. Some focused on what is now called the Wisconsin Technical College System and ​its districts; others focused on what is now called the UW System; and a few focused on what is today called the UW Colleges. Before 2020, is it time to discuss the value and various reasons for convening a new group ​to study the future of Wisconsin postsecondary education?

During the last five years, there have been a number of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorials, guest columns by Tom Hefty, and other articles and reports that advanced th​is question. The reaction to those recommendations, frequently, has been that one or more of the higher education systems (UW System, WTCS, and WAICU) did not want to pursue the topic. Other concerns included questions about the partisan nature of state government and its potential impact on an objective study. Over the last three years, WISCAPE has convened several regional forums on the future of Wisconsin’s postsecondary education landscape and those discussions also included ​its relationship to Wisconsin’s K-12 districts.

During the 1980s and in the early 1990s, the Minnesota legislature and ​the state's multiple higher education systems (community colleges, technical colleges, and regional universities) had a three-year debate about how best to serve tomorrow’s students, advance society, and improve the economy​. They then identified various options for governing the state colleges and universities. In 1995, the legislature approved the merger of seven state universities, 34 technical colleges, and 21 community colleges under one board​, now called Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU). As a side note, UW System President Ray Cross served as president of Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, Minn., from 1992-98.

On January 23, 1969, Governor Knowles created a Special Committee on Education to “…study in depth the State’s financial and administrative relationships with educational at all levels.” It was called the Governor’s Commission on Education, and on November 20, 1970, the chairman of the of the Commission, William Kellett submitted ​a report to Governor Knowles. Most people know of the report as the Kellett Commission: View the report ​or summary recommendations.

Is it time to have a public discussion in Wisconsin about the merits of creating and convening a Citizen’s Blue Ribbon Commission on postsecondary education?

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