LA CROSSE, Wis.—With more than 40,000 students, a billion dollars in research activity and Big Ten athletics, UW-Madison is not only the flagship university in the UW System, but is also one of the state’s most visible symbols nationally.
And while Madison has felt the effects of the $250 million budget cut to the system enacted in the state’s last biennial budget, the school’s rich research and alumni base have given it options not available to most of the state’s other public universities.
UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow said that while his university took a major hit in the last budget, both Gov. Scott Walker and former Gov. Jim Doyle have consistently cut funding for the UW System in the past decade.
But Gow noted that the current tuition freeze, which Walker instituted in 2012, has deepened the effect of declining state support.
“The new wrinkle is the tuition freeze,” he said. “Prior to that there was some ability to offset the cuts with tuition … that’s why there’s been this reduction in resources in the past few years in particular.”
UW-La Crosse has an enrollment of roughly 10,500 students, the vast majority of which are undergraduates. Student body president Jacob Schimmel said this contributes to a close-knit community on campus.
“The coolest thing is the fact that you feel so involved here,” Schimmel said. “That helps promote a sense of inclusion for everybody.”
But the university has been forced to cut 45 positions, mainly in support services. While no teaching positions have been cut, Schimmel said reductions in advising and student life have negatively impacted the campus experience.
“The state thinks the only thing that is vital, necessary and wanted is the classroom experience,” Schimmel said. “And sure, that’s the core of the university, but there’s so much more that is vital.”
He noted that funding for some student organizations, including sexual assault prevention and diversity programs, is derived from state funding. The university was unable to expand its campus climate office, despite a rise in reported hate and bias incidents.
“A lot of things were cut that shouldn’t be,” he said, explaining that the office is “bare bones” after being unable to expand.
Gow said if the next budget required another round of cuts, the university would begin reducing faculty positions.
“We are at a point where if we have to do this again we’ll have to go into the teaching piece,” Gow said. “And that would be unfortunate because that would mean the classic bigger classes and fewer classes and that makes it more difficult to graduate.”
In the face of declining funding for the system and subsequent lower salaries for folks working on campus, UW-La Crosse has also struggled to maintain a competitive pay rate for its top faculty.
This is not a challenge unique to La Crosse—even UW-Madison has had to fend off other state universities looking to poach superstar professors. But while the flagship campus was able to spend close to $24 million to retain faculty, Gow said his school cannot come close to producing those funds for that purpose.
“We are so strained that I don’t know many instances where we’ve been able to match a counter-offer,” Gow said.
And professors at UW-La Crosse who are unhappy with their salaries need not look far to find better positions. Just across the Mississippi, faculty at Winona State University in Minnesota make roughly $5,000 more a year, and Gow said even the local technical college offers higher pay.
To convince faculty and staff to stay, Gow explained that he and other school leaders work hard to ensure a great workplace environment on campus. But even that is difficult as legislators continue to criticize professors, he added.
“There was this remark, ‘They ought to teach another class,’” Gow said. “I don’t know whether the people who throw that around know how demoralizing that is.”
The university could see additional funding in the next budget cycle depending on how it measures up to several performance metrics, something Walker said he would like to see for all system schools. But Gow was skeptical of how that could affect both his campus and others in the UW system.
For example, UW-La Crosse’s retention rate is second only to UW-Madison’s in the system. But for other campuses that may struggle to retain students, Gow argued that performance-based funding will not help them perform better until they are provided with the resources to do so.
“I think there’s a cynicism to the concept, frankly, where people say you aren’t doing enough and we’re not going to give you money if you don’t do better,” Gow said.
He added that tying funding to performance could, in some cases, homogenize system schools even more than they already are.
“If it’s about graduation or retention rates, then what incentive do universities have to admit students who are on the margin of their academic ability?” Gow said. “That’s not what a public university is all about.”
Despite recent cuts, state Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, said universities like UW-La Crosse are vital for both students and the state as a whole.
Billings said the university brings significant value to her community, with students “falling in love” with La Crosse and staying in the city, while paying taxes and creating jobs.
“Not all kids want to go to a school like Madison, a larger school that has a lot of research associated with it,” Billings said. “Some kids just want to go to a smaller town and be on a smaller campus, and receive that specialty that comes from the individual campuses around Wisconsin.”