25 UW campuses increasingly strapped for funds

It’s only a matter of time until the political leaders of the state address the obvious necessity to set an updated strategy for the University of Wisconsin System. Big ideas for new directions for UWS won’t jump out during the careful campaign for governor. The current campaigns are careful and narrow to the point of boring.

But the next governor, whether it’s Scott Walker or Tony Evers, will have to deal with the major challenges facing a system that has lost more than 10,000 students over the last decade.

The problems are largely absent at UW – Madison, our flagship campus, because it is the top choice of graduating seniors from high school. It automatically fills its guaranty of 3600 incoming frosh from Wisconsin, and, fortunately, it has multiple sources of other funding, including:

• High tuition revenues from students from other states and countries. (It only loses money on the reciprocal students from Minnesota at UW – Madison; most of them go back home after graduation.)

• Big dollars from research and development, more than $1 billion per year, mostly federal dollars, even though it has been slipping in peer R&D rankings and doesn’t punch its weight in winning industry research dollars.

• Earnings from almost $9 billion in foundation assets.

• Earnings from UW Health, which now stretches across four states.

What we are looking at is a tale of two university systems, UW – Madison and the other 25 campuses that are increasingly strapped for funds, resulting in dreary pattern of continual down-sizing.

System enrollments are down from 180,269 to 170,827 over the last ten years, and the tuition dollars fall as the numbers fall. Couple that runoff with an eight-year tuition freeze and generally declining support from state tax dollars over the same period and you have a recipe for a less vibrant system, even a declining system. Note: the lower support was bipartisan.

There surely was some fat in the system, but much of it has been rendered.

UW – Milwaukee, unlike UW – Madison – has taken big hits. Its enrollment has dropped from 29,000 to about 26,000, and it has cut $40 million from its budget by running down it staff by 15%, mostly through attrition.

UWM has not cut any departments, but it has cut “concentrations,” aka “minors.”
If one were the master strategist for the system, one would think that UWM, with by far the most diverse student body (students of color, first generation students, veterans, immigrants, LGBT) would get most favored nation status.

But university strategy is a hidden concept in UWS headquarters, in the legislature and in the governor’s office.The only visible strategy is a continuing tuition freeze. That’s just not enough.

There was an inkling of strategy last year in the merger of the 13 two-year UW Colleges into the 12 four-year comprehensive campuses. For instance, UW– Waukesha and UW – Washington County are now satellite campuses for UWM.

The two-year campuses, pillars in their communities for more than 50 years, were starved for funds, lost their deans in the cost cutting, lost their marketing and recruiting budgets and predictably saw enrollments drop sharply. The colleges were already leaner than lean, with very low pay scales. There were other factors in the enrollment fall-offs, but the disinvestment was a major factor.

President Ray Cross did what he had to do to save the 13 campuses, and they may be better off being part of the four-year college system. So far, so good.
Clearly, though, UWS needs more innovative answers that just across-the-board incremental budget cuts. That’s the opposite of strategy.

UW – Stevens Point is one campus dealing strategically with the reality of lower demand with a repositioning in favor of the STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) majors. Other majors were reduced to minors. There was a hullabaloo from the departments that were reduced, but there will have to be more specialization if enrollments continue to decline.

Should any of the campuses be closed? That bears deep analysis, but ultimately becomes a political exercise, with legislators and UW regents fighting fiercely for their home campuses.

In terms of consolidating assets, the U.S. military, with its multitude of redundant bases, offers a model. A base commission makes a blanket recommendation on which bases should stay open and which should close. Congress can vote for the whole package, yea or nay, without amendment.

The parallel would be a Wisconsin Blue Ribbon Commission to make a package of recommendations on campuses and consolidation of majors. How many journalism programs do we need?

One of the recent developments on campuses is the creation of cross-disciplinary centers to focus on major needs of society. Examples are the UWM Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship, its new centers for embedded systems (the Internet of Things), energy storage and grid management, data sciences and a college of fresh water technology.

These connections to the real-world challenges make the campuses more relevant and therefore more attractive to funders.

These are examples of strategic initiatives that could be deployed across the state.

Other ideas?

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