A planned reorganization of the University of Wisconsin System could dilute the link between counties and UW Colleges and strain financial investments made by counties in the schools, officials say.
“Losing the campus identity here could jeopardize county board support for future investment in new facilities,” said Allen Buechel, county executive for Fond du Lac County.
Fond du Lac, like other counties where 12 of the state’s UW Colleges are located, owns and maintains the property and facilities of the two-year campuses located there. Counties also typically finance construction and remodeling of facilities. UW Marshfield/Wood County facilities are jointly owned by the city of Marshfield and Wood County.
The UW Colleges, in return, play important roles in the economic and cultural lives of their communities.
At UW-Fond du Lac, the county borrowed to finance a $12.9 million University Center 17 years ago, Buechel said. Now being planned is a $10 million gymnasium, and other possible improvements that could push the price tag much higher, he said.
UW-Fond du Lac and UW-Fox Valley would become branches of UW-Oshkosh under a reorganization plan proposed by UW System President Ray Cross to respond to plummeting enrollment at the two-year campuses since 2010. Merger proponents say it will facilitate the transfer of UW Colleges students to the university’s four-year schools.
The UW System Board of Regents is expected on Thursday to approve Cross’ proposal to merge the UW Colleges into seven of the system’s 13 four-year institutions on July 1.
The changes would follow a “regionalization” of UW Colleges implemented two years ago in response to continued cuts to state funding of UW and a climate of increased legislative demands that the university better sync its offerings to the workforce and economic development needs of the state. County officials, like much of the UW System community, got no warning of the decision to merge campuses before it was announced on Oct. 11.
James Perry, emeritus campus executive officer and dean at UW-Fox Valley, is one of a group of former UW College campus leaders joining a small chorus of voices asking university administrators to slow down and study the likely impact of the mergers before implementing the reorganization plan.
UW Colleges collaboration with and support from their counties is one concern the group has raised, give the prospect that merger opens the door to possibly closing the two-year campuses.
“If things are not planned right and enrollment does not remain stable or grow, one can imagine somewhere down the line where the chancellor for a four-year campus finds they just can’t support the UW College campus,” Perry said.
Perry said he and the other emeritus officials believe that enrollment declines at UW Colleges were exacerbated by “regionalization” of the campuses in 2015. Merging of student services and recruitment offices meant the loss of the “face” of the campus and dilution of recruitment efforts, he said.
Identification with the local UW College campus is important in rural Wisconsin.
For example, support for continued county investment in UW-Fond du Lac would diminish if the name of the campus were changed, Buechel said.
The sign at the entrance to campus “shouldn’t say ‘UW-Oshkosh,’” he said. “To me, that’s important.”
The UW College campuses also play an important role in the economic health and cultural life of their communities, local officials say.
Not only do the two-year colleges allow “place bound” students to start their college careers while living at home, earning money on the job and paying lower tuition, they also boost the local economy, said Mark Harris, county executive of Winnebago County, where UW-Fox Valley in Menasha is located.
“It’s a big infusion of economic activity,” Harris said of the campus. The state covers the payroll for faculty and other staff at the school, and the campus also supplies the workforce needs of the region, he said.
A special program at UW-Fox Valley allows students to complete engineering degrees on the two-year campus, responding to a need for more trained workers at Oshkosh Corporation, a manufacturer of military and rescue vehicles, Harris said.
Marshfield Alderman Chris Jockheck is concerned about what the merger of UW-Marshfield-Wood County with UW-Stevens Point will mean culturally for his city.
The city and county each paid $1 million toward a recently completed building for studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at UW-Marshfield-Wood County, local officials say.
But the merger of faculty in the theater department under the regionalization of the campuses has Jockheck wondering what the future will be for continued operation of the theater on the local campus.
“In a community our size, this is important for citizens far beyond students,” Jockheck said. “They do productions, community outreach – this is a quality of life issue for us.”
UW-Stevens Point, a half hour away, has its own thriving theater program, he said. Given the budget challenges forcing the four-year school to consider cutting its offerings, continuing a theater program at UW-Marshfield/Wood County could become a low priority, he said.
“We’re trying to do economic development and quality of life is a big part of economic development,” he said. “The legislature and the governor don’t seem to care.”