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Thursday, October 21, 2021
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The Chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges released a report Wednesday that recommended consolidating the UW System and “thawing” the tuition freeze. Democrats said the report was drafted without the input of committee members.

A ‘very un-Wisconsin idea’: Democrats criticize Republican’s report recommending UW System consolidation, end to tuition freeze

Democrats criticized a report created by the Chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges that recommended consolidation within the UW System and ending the tuition freeze on Friday. 

Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, released the report “A Wisconsin Roadmap to Success in Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century” on Wednesday. Two days later, the committee’s four Democrats released a joint statement objecting to the passage of the report. 

The Democrats said that the “unusual document” was drafted by Roth, who they say did not communicate that he intended to draft a report based on invitation-only informational hearings. The lawmakers said they only had 48 hours to review the 93-page report, which was “crafted without the input of committee members.” 

“Most egregiously, our shared values of accessible and affordable higher education throughout our state are directly threatened by this report’s self-declared recommendations,” the statement read. “The report elevates the very un-Wisconsin idea of consolidating programs and shuttering UW campuses around the state, limiting access for students.”

Badgers United, a nonprofit that operates separately from UW-Madison, supported the report’s recommendations of ending the tuition freeze, reorganizing the UW System and considering enrollment levels for capital budget projects. The organization advocates for more state funding and its board of directors includes notable alumni and donors such as John and Tashia Morgridge. 

“UW-Madison, and Wisconsin’s higher education more broadly, has never been in a more precarious position, and we are happy to see our elected leaders proposing bold action to put our land-grant university back on the right track,” Peter Kies, Chair of the Badgers United Board, said.

UW System consolidation

The report recommends further consolidating the UW System into four regions, plus the system’s flagship university, UW-Madison. According to the report, this would not close any campus but would aim to consolidate administrative operations, budgeting and academic programs. 

The report said that while other campuses are experiencing decreased enrollment, UW-Madison’s enrollment continues to grow. 

The UW System campuses, excluding UW-Madison, would be reorganized into the following regions:

  • Northwest region: UW–Eau Claire; UW–River Falls; UW–Stout; UW–Superior
  • Northeast region: UW–Green Bay; UW–Oshkosh; UW–Stevens Point
  • Southwest region: UW–La Crosse; UW–Platteville
  • Milwaukee region: UW–Milwaukee; UW–Parkside; UW–Whitewater 

UW System President Tommy Thompson said in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he opposes regional consolidation, but he is working to centralize administrative programs. 

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Tuition freeze

The report recommends a “thawing” of the UW System tuition freeze that was established in 2013. It notes that UW System President Tommy Thompson testified in March that the UW System estimates a net loss of $170 million through the end of the spring semester. 

The report says tuition adjustments could be “gradual and limited” based on inflation. Another option would be establishing a “cohort tuition” model, where incoming in-state freshmen would not see an increase during their first four years. 

In January, Thompson said Republican leaders advised him against a tuition raise in his budget request. Evers’ budget called for continuing the freeze and requested additional funding to offset the losses. The Joint Finance Committee is now working to rewrite Evers’ proposal. 

Building projects

Additionally, the report addressed the capital budget process, recommending that an institution’s enrollment levels be considered before a new building project moves forward. According to the report, this would help “evaluate whether investing millions of dollars in the infrastructure of a campus with a shrinking student population is an appropriate allocation of the state’s resources.”

Republicans on the State Building Commission voted down Evers’ proposals for new construction projects across the UW System, and the Joint Finance Committee may include funding for some projects in their budget plan. 

Among the projects include a new Letters and Science building at UW-Madison, which is part of a plan to demolish the Mosse Humanities Building. Thompson and UW-Madison Rebecca Blank highlighted the need for a new building in April when they toured the aging facility. 

An engineering review recently found structural concerns on the northwest side of the building, requiring immediate repairs. Van Hise Hall was also the focus of emergency repairs when concrete slabs fell from the building. 

Free speech

The report also recommends more training and enforcement of the Board of Regents’ free speech policy and an independent commission of experts to study the “impediments to free expression in the UW System.” Republicans have raised concerns that conservative voices are suppressed in university environments. 

The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership recently published a survey that found “troubling” attitudes toward free speech among undergraduate students at UW-Madison. Three UW-Madison professors wrote an op-ed saying that the report “violates key tenets of social science research.” The Center defended its report

Academic offerings

Lastly, the report recommends that the UW System develop more online programming, recruit and retain nontraditional students and use plain-language guidance on financial aid. It also recommends that all high school students have an opportunity to earn college credit at least one semester through a dual enrollment class. 

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Hope Karnopp

state news writer

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