University of Wisconsin System interim President Tommy Thompson claims Republican leaders in the state legislature advised him to not raise tuition in his first budget request.
The Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF), a nonpartisan research organization, hosted a panel discussion with Thompson on Monday focused on the minimal state support for the UW System — the panel also included UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone.
WPF released a study in December displaying that state and local tax appropriations in Wisconsin dropped from $10,333 per student to $6,846 per student, which is well below the national average.
In 2013, State lawmakers imposed an eight-year tuition freeze for UW System schools, due to the financial stress at the universities — though Blank pointed out that in-state tuition at UW-Madison is already about $3,000 less than peer institutions in Minnesota and Illinois.
When Thompson was questioned on whether it was time to end the tuition freeze at the state’s universities to relieve financial burden, he said GOP leaders in the Legislature warned it would sink the UW budget.
"I have been told in no uncertain terms by the leadership of the Legislature that if I come in with a tuition increase, the budget is not going to go anywhere," Thompson said. "So, I've got to balance a tuition increase proposal with getting the rest of the budget through."
Thompson wants a $96 million increase in state revenue for the UW System, part of which would go toward establishing a grant program at state colleges offering free tuition for some students in low-income families. But without a tuition raise, that increase looks unlikely to happen.
“Now I can’t afford to come back out of this budget without winning," Thompson said. "I have been told that if I come in [with a tuition raise], I'm going to lose, I've got to take that into consideration. So, right now, I think the tuition increase is going to be a battle for another day.”
The budget, which was approved by the UW Board of Regents last August, seeks authority from legislators to allow the system to borrow up to $1 billion to help recover the financial damage COVID-19 has caused. The UW-Madison campus has estimated that by July of this year, it will have lost $320 million in revenue since the pandemic began. Unlike many other public universities in America, the Wisconsin System has to ask its state congress to borrow money, which has hampered efforts to get that funding.
"Look at my athletic department, which has been financially devastated this year," Blank said. "In the absence of borrowing, I couldn’t do other things which I'm trying desperately to do."
If Blank didn’t shift money placements into different initiatives, she claims she would have had to implement mass layoffs including coaching positions, which would have forced her to rebuild the athletic programs the following year.
The Big Ten football conference offered loans to universities who were hit by COVID-19 related losses, said Blank. However, she said UW-Madison was the only university who formally requested a loan, since other institutions already had bonds to help them in the short term, according to WPR.
In June, previous UW System President Ray Cross unsuccessfully requested Evers and Republican legislative leaders to consider granting the bonding authority to the state’s colleges and universities, which proved unsuccessful. At the time, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, claimed they would discuss the idea.