College News

Two-year UW colleges would merge with four-year schools under sweeping proposal

Student leaders confused about details of plan, concerned over lack of student input

Under the plan, UW-Madison would not merge with any two-year schools, but would take over some of UW-Extension’s operations.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

As student leaders from UW Schools convened Wednesday night for an emergency conference call, the mood was somber. Representatives held the unofficial meeting to hear thoughts from each campus on a proposal to drastically restructure the UW System, and no one on the call was there to defend the plan.

During the hour-long discussion, every representative who spoke had concerns — and some sounded downright panicked. Above all, representatives were frustrated with the lack of information they’d been given during rollout of the proposal, which they called “sloppy” and “rushed.”

“I think there’s a lot of questions floating around here,” Katy McGarry, UW-Eau Claire’s student body president, observed. “Not a lot of answers.”

The proposal, leaked Tuesday with few details and officially announced by UW System leaders Wednesday, would merge the state’s two-year campuses with four-year schools next summer. Each two-year school would become a branch of a nearby four-year institution, rather than remaining a stand-alone college.

Under the plan, UW-Madison would not merge with any two-year schools, but would take over parts of UW-Extension’s operations, including Cooperative Extension and conference centers. The rest of UW-Extension’s functions would fall under UW System administration.

UW System President Ray Cross said he aims to officially propose the plan to the Board of Regents in November. The board would have to approve the proposal in order for it to come to fruition.

The sweeping change is necessary, the system says, in order to combat declining enrollment and low graduation rates at the state’s two-year campuses. Emily Campbell, public information officer for UW-Extension and UW Colleges, said restructuring “will position the UW System to best meet the needs of students and ensure the UW System’s important presence in each community is viable over the long-term.”

“There has been a 32 percent decline in the number of full-time equivalent students at UW-Colleges since 2010,” Campbell said. “This and the relatively flat to declining projected high school graduation rate projections are major headwinds that need to be comprehensively addressed.”

But student leaders from across the state are skeptical that restructuring the UW System so drastically is the way the address the problem. And they aren’t willing to get on board with the proposal when so few of their concerns have been addressed.

Tiffany Yang, the student body president of UW-Fox Valley — a two-year school that would be merged into UW-Oshkosh under the proposal — said she’s “not really sure this is a solution to increase enrollment throughout the UW System.” She added that the details of the plan are so unclear, she doesn’t know yet whether two-year campuses would retain their unique character.

“Are we going to be considered UW-Oshkosh now, or are we still UW-Fox Valley?” Yang asked.

Other student representatives had a host of questions and concerns: Jacob Schimmel of UW-La Crosse said he is “really uncomfortable” with potential job losses that might come from such a restructuring, UW-Platteville’s Calvin Brice expressed frustration about the lack of student input in the process and leaders from UW-Barron County wondered whether their two-year school would still have its own athletics programs.

Even students at UW-Oshkosh, which held a forum for students to ask the school’s chancellor about the restructuring plan, walked away with more questions than answers. Maria Berge, the president of the school’s student body, said many of her concerns “were met with the answer that these are still things that need to be addressed.”

Berge did say UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt assured students that under the proposal, two-year college professors would retain their tenure, and that the system was “not interested in reducing amount of faculty whatsoever.”

Schimmel, who had spoken with UW System leaders, attempted to alleviate some of his fellow representatives’ concerns as well; he said Cross told him that colleges’ segregated fees would remain separate even as schools merged, and that the schools would not have to combine into one student government body.

Still, Schimmel did not endorse the plan. Like nearly everyone else, he stressed that many questions still need to be answered.

In a statement corresponding with the announcement of the proposal, Cross attempted to address such concerns.

“Change often produces uncertainty, but we cannot be afraid to pursue needed reforms," he said. "Our goal is to expand access and provide more educational opportunities for more students, while ensuring our faculty are appropriately organized and supported. We are committed to making the transition as smooth as possible for students, faculty, and staff.”

Coltan Schoenike, public relations specialist for UW-Stout’s student government, echoed the rest of the student representatives when he said he wasn’t buying it.

“We have been so concerned with how little consultation there has been with students during this,” Schoenike said. “Obviously people are going to the two-year schools for very specific and intentional reasons … this could eliminate a lot of the accessibility.”

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