A requiem for UWM-WC; a look forward

The last class of students has been taking its final exams at the West Bend campus of the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee at Washington County.

The West Bend Theatre Company staged its last play at its Theatre on the Hill — with almost full houses.

The grass is getting long on the soccer field. Its fence is in disrepair.

West Bend Friends of Sculpture is moving an artwork it lent to the campus to a downtown location.

By any measure, it is a sad, sad ending to more than 50 years of exemplary and affordable college education for high school graduates and returning adults. A sizable group of local leaders got their start at the UW campus.

In its demise, slated for month-end, there is plenty of room for finger pointing, for a Hail Mary play at the state level and for a strategy to transform the campus’ beautiful buildings and Kettle Moraine grounds into a productive new use.

First the postmortem:

  • Demographics played the biggest role in the demise of the campus and three other two-year UW colleges. (Nine of 13 are still in business, some with revamped business models.) The number of 18-year-old high school graduates has been declining in Wisconsin for a couple of decades. Birthrates have dropped, and Wisconsin has little in-migration.
  • High school juniors and seniors are earning college credits through advanced placement courses (AP), dual enrollment and on-line courses. In effect, two-year colleges have lost a big part of their market. High school graduates leave with a big part of their freshman years under their belts.
  • The job market is red-hot in Wisconsin. Unemployment is less than 3% in Washington County. Pay levels have risen fast in the private sector. So, some graduates skip college and its associated debt by going straight into the work force. Companies offer all sorts of training to the new hires.
  • UWM cut many resources at the West Bend campus, including the elimination of an on-site dean and athletics. It did little innovation and recruitment to attract students. Call it management malpractice.
  • The Washington County Community Foundation, with about $4 million in assets, rejected an opportunity to help with recruitment to the campus.

Second, the possible Hail Mary:

  • Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC ) vetoed the opportunity to be a white knight and absorb the UWM liberal arts students. UW-Green Bay did just the opposite by declaring juniors and seniors in high school as part of their college student body as they take dual credit courses.
  • Universities around the country are sending letters of admission to juniors and seniors with good enrollment results. UWM diminished its recruiting.
  • The governor and the legislature have refused to address the obvious solution of consolidating the two-year UW colleges with the two-year technical colleges. That has already happened at six of the 16 technical colleges. Bonnie Baerwald, MPTC president, and Myrna Foy, the retiring head of the state tech college system, vetoed merger in West Bend and Fond du Lac. Some legislators have considered a state-wide merger of the two-year institutions, but nothing has happened yet. Our education governor, Tony Evers, has been silent on the issue.
  • An over-ride of the opposition and the creation of a network of community colleges remains an option.

Third, the future use of the West Bend campus:

  • Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann is creating a task force to evaluate options for the beautiful campus. It has not yet swung into action.
  • A number of possible uses for the campus, without any weight behind any one of them, include: selling or leasing to a developer for office space or corporate headquarters; a private high school; a central site for offerings of AP credits on a collective basis for the five surrounding K-12 districts; and an incubator for start-up companies.
  • Rental of the athletic facilities.

A bill has been passed to provide $2 million to the counties that will end up holding the bag on the campus facilities. It could provide a band-aid as new uses are sought for the building and grounds.

One novel idea would be to use part of the $2 million seed money for local entrepreneurial ventures. It is well established that entrepreneurs are the best job creators; they reinvent the economy. But most new ventures take five to ten years or more to mature. So that would be a longer-term play.

The simplest answer for the county would be to work with a developer for the whole property. There might be a temptation to manage the property at the county level, but that’s not what county bureaucrats do for a living.

A private sector developer would be more creative and would know how to attract private investment.

A prediction: UW President Jay Rothman will take the easy, but uncreative route; he will close the remaining nine two-year UW campuses one-by-one as they lose enrollment.

The Wisconsin Idea, the philosophy of delivering education to all parts of the state, has suffered mightily with the closures.

P.S. Rothman has not visited the campuses he closed and has not sought input from local leaders, nor has he acknowledged the Washington County Task Force on Higher Education recommendation to merge the two-year systems, which I co-chaired.

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