Layoffs prompted by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System could hit UW-Madison as soon as April, Chancellor Rebecca Blank told employees at public meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

The announcement brought into high relief for stunned employees the potential impact of the massive cuts.

“I’m gutted by it,” Nicole Nelson, a history of science professor who came to UW a year ago from Canada, said of the proposed cuts. “This is not a mentality that I can even begin to understand. When you already have a world-class university in the public system that is competing with Ivy League institutions for professors, why would you want to gut it? You have a jewel. Why would you tear it apart?”

In his 2015-17 budget proposal Walker has proposed cutting $300 million from the UW System and continuing a tuition freeze over the next two years. In exchange, the System would have more autonomy over such matters as human resources and building and construction.

The System would have more say over tuition after 2017 under the proposal, but Walker suggested Thursday he would support a long-term tuition cap.

Blank announced the potential for layoffs as she addressed several hundred third-shift employees during a late-night meeting at the university’s Health Sciences Learning Center on Wednesday and again Thursday afternoon before more than 500 employees at Union South.

A third meeting with employees is scheduled for Friday morning at Ebling Auditorium in the Microbial Sciences building.

Head shakes and whispers in many languages filled the auditorium Wednesday night as Blank delivered the news, which was translated simultaneously in Mandarin, Hmong and Tibetan, with a delayed translation in Spanish.

A state fiscal bureau analysis released this month showed that UW-Madison faces the largest dollar cut of all System schools, at $57.7 million in 2015-16. Blank said cuts from the last two-year budget have not been fully absorbed, meaning if the budget is adopted with the level of Walker’s proposed cuts, the university could face a $90 million-plus budget gap.

A portion of that gap could be filled with additional tuition revenue. Blank has asked the UW System Board of Regents for authority to charge more for out-of-state undergraduates and students in some of the university’s professional schools where tuition is currently less expensive than at peer schools. She’s also asked that the flagship campus be allowed to enroll more out-of-state students, which are currently capped at 27.5 percent. Blank wants to increase that to 30 percent.

The overall $300 million cut amounts to 13 percent of the System’s state aid, but just 2.5 percent of its total budget — money that Walker argues can be made up in the short term with efficiencies, more fundraising, tapping reserves and other means. Those cuts are in exchange for the greater freedom and flexibility Walker is offering, and that university leaders have lobbied for years to get.

Blank said she could cut all funding to the university’s five smallest schools — business, law, nursing, pharmacy and veterinary medicine — and still fall short of the $90 million total.

“We’re not going to do that, but it’s a sense of what the magnitude of these cuts are,” she said. “We know there will be some cuts, so we will be starting to make and announce some budget cuts this spring. My guess (is that) in April there will be at least some preliminary announcement and early notification of layoffs going out. But how many and where, we do not know yet.”

Deans, directors and department heads will be responsible for deciding how budget cuts are allocated, but administrative units will take larger cuts in an effort to preserve educational functions, she said. Blank asked all deans and department heads to submit plans to cut their units by 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent last fall.

The university remains subject to the state’s human resources rules through July 1, so layoffs administered prior to that date will be based primarily on seniority. After July 1, UW-Madison can implement its own human resources system and will have more flexibility in determining cuts.

“While there’s still a strong emphasis on seniority, there’s still some emphasis on the skills needed inside units, which could also be a reason for why one person is laid off and another is not,” Blank said.

The university is hoping to keep a registry to give employees who are laid off the first shot at future job openings on campus.

Blank reiterated she was not announcing mass layoffs and said the total number would be relatively small. She said, however, that she’s “not hopeful” state employees will get raises this year.

A common theme from attendees at the Thursday forum was frustration over the lack of public support for the university and outrage at the proposed cuts.

One employee suggested the best way to get people’s attention would be eliminate the Athletics Department or withdraw from the Big Ten Conference.

“Why is athletics sacrosanct?” said Greg Padden, an information technology worker. “If you read the mission statement of the university, nowhere in there is there anything about entertaining the citizens of Wisconsin. Big Ten sports is entertainment and the average Joe sees value in that.

“Pulling out of the Big Ten must be on the table. It may seem like a radical idea but it will get people’s attention about the impact of these budget cuts. It’s either we sacrifice your kids’ education or we sacrifice your entertainment.”

Walker’s budget goes to the Legislature, which can adjust it. Republican leaders have said they might reduce the proposed budget cuts to the public universities, depending upon the state revenue picture.

State Journal reporters Matthew DeFour and Dan Simmons contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Jeff Glaze at jglaze@madison.com or 608-252-6138. Contact reporter Dennis Punzel at dpunzel@madison.com or 608-252-6179.

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