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UW System two-year, four-year colleges will merge after regents approve controversial plan

The Board of Regents accepted the merger proposal with only two dissenters.

Image By: Jon Yoon

The UW System will move forward with its “most significant re-organization” in over 45 years — a sweeping merge of the system’s two-year and four-year colleges — even though many questions remain unanswered.

Although many regents had concerns about parts of the proposal, the Board voted with only two dissenters to accept the plan and leave the details for later. While a few regents asked for the vote to be postponed, others countered that accepting the plan now would allow more time to deal with the specifics.

Students, System faculty and some members of the Board of Regents criticized administrators’ lack of planning and failure to consult with important stakeholders up until this point. Some stressed the need for more study before embarking on such a drastic change. But ultimately, the plan passed the Board and will now move into the implementation phase.

The plan, introduced Oct. 11 by UW System President Ray Cross, 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.

Cross admitted “this is a proposal, not a plan” and said “we do not have a fully-developed plan with all the details worked out.”

The plan originally leaked before any UW College staff or administration — including UW Colleges Chancellor Cathy Sandeen — had been consulted. Sandeen has since come out in favor of the merger, saying she believes four-year schools will be able to invest more resources in the smaller campuses.

The system’s two-year colleges have been in a downward spiral for years, experiencing falling enrollment rates — a 32 percent decline in full-time students since 2010 — and financial difficulties.

“This and the relatively flat-to-declining projected high school graduation rate projections are major headwinds that need to be comprehensively addressed,” said Emily Campbell, the UW System’s public information officer.

If the system did nothing to change the structure of UW Colleges, Cross said the “status quo” could only be maintained for two more years, or “maybe 30 months.” He said it is the job of the Board of Regents to make “bold” suggestions.

At the meeting Thursday, he outlined two other options that he called impractical: closing campuses, which he said goes against the system’s mission, or undergoing an “extremely complex” merger with Wisconsin Technical College System, which he claimed would burden taxpayers and have to pass the state Legislature.

The last option — the controversial merger proposal that has been mired in controversy and drawn many questions surrounding lack of information — is the only viable alternative, according to Cross.

Chancellors from schools around the state, including UW-Madison’s Rebecca Blank, voiced support for the proposal. Additionally, some members of the Board of Regents spoke out in favor of the resolution and pushed back against the idea that the proposal was rushed.

“The criticism I’ve gotten is ‘stop, slow down’ — [usually] the criticism is that we don’t go fast enough,” said Regent S. Mark Tyler. “We need to move quickly on this.”

However, other stakeholders from around the UW System attended the meeting Thursday and presented arguments to the Board in opposition to the restructuring. Additionally, some regents and former regents were outspoken against the rushed nature of the proposal even before the meeting.

“Your proposal may be a good idea or a bad idea, but it is not a new idea,” former Regent Emeritus Tom Loftus wrote in an open letter to Cross. “Change course and pledge to go on a listening tour and visit every two-year college and hear them out. That is the Wisconsin Idea.”

Regent Tony Evers, also a candidate for governor, said he would not support the plan because people around the state feel left behind by the way the proposal was rolled out.

“Bad process leads to bad policy,” Evers said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the lack of specific information available about the plan was what worried students most. In an emergency UW System Student Representatives meeting in October, student leaders stressed that the system would need to answer a number of questions if students were to get on board with the plan.

Students also criticized the lack of input from campus leaders in developing the plan.

“We have been so concerned with how little consultation there has been with students during this,” Coltan Schoenike, public relations specialist for UW-Stout’s student government, said in October. “Obviously people are going to the two-year schools for very specific and intentional reasons … this could eliminate a lot of the accessibility.”

At Thursday’s regents’ meeting, Nick Webber, government relations director for UWSSR, urged the system to give students a voice in the process going forward.

"We asked the leadership today to allow for a student representative with voting rights on the steering committee, and we hope they accept this request, because when it comes to deciding the future of our state, the future deserves a seat at the table," a UWSSR statement reads.

Students at four-year UW-Stout and two-year UW-Sheboygan also raised red flags about their respective partnerships. Some at the schools are worried the merger would hurt existing relationships two-year and four-year schools have with campuses they are not paired with under the proposal. UW-Stout’s administration expressed concern that if UW-Barron County merges with UW-Eau Claire, Stout will lose a large number of transfer students.

But Chancellor James Schmidt of UW-Eau Claire said he does not just want to make a “small Eau Claire in Barron County.” He said he wants to keep each campus’s individual identity and invite recruiters from all four-year universities to speak to UW College students looking to transfer.

“If you focus on the students, everything will work out,” Schmidt said.

Now, it is up to Cross and other administrators to come up with a more detailed proposal before the plan goes into effect.

UPDATE Nov. 9 4:09 p.m.: This post was updated to include a statement from UWSSR.

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