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Students, professors and lawmakers attend a March 25 town hall at UW-River Falls.

‘A crisis by design’: Students, profs, lawmakers hold town hall on declining state higher ed support in Wisconsin

Members of American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls led the March 25 town hall.

University of Wisconsin-River Falls community members held a town hall on March 25 in response to declining state support for higher education and cost-cutting measures implemented by the UW System.

The town hall was hosted by representatives of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin (AFT). It comes as five two-year campuses throughout the UW System have shuttered in-person classes or closed completely, while some four-year campuses have implemented sweeping cuts in response to budget deficits.

An April 2023 Wisconsin Policy Forum report found Wisconsin ranks 43rd in state support for four-year campuses, though its technical colleges are the fifth-best funded nationally. 

“This is a crisis, and it is a crisis by design,” said Rep. Kristina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, a panel member at the town hall. 

As campuses like UW-River Falls await consultants’ budget reports, some UW System campus members worry reduced program accessibility and staffing could damage the system and exacerbate economic divides between other universities and UW-Madison, which serves the least low-income students of any UW System school at 15.3%.

Jon Shelton, a UW-Green Bay labor and education professor and AFT-Higher Education vice president, and Neil Kraus, a UW-River Falls political science professor and president of the River Falls chapter of AFT, led the discussion. 

They were joined by three students and two Democratic state legislators: Shankland and Sen. Jeff Smith of Brunswick.

Here are four takeaways from the town hall.

Budget struggles are intentional, panelists say

The UW System is debating how it can confront deficits at 10 of its 13 four-year campuses. Panelists said the budget crisis it faces is intentional.

“This is decades of austerity planning but mostly political control,” Smith said, pointing to lingering effects from Act 10 and increased Republican hostility toward higher education systems. 

Smith pointed to previous political debates to claim that austerity is “not something new.”

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Shankland agreed. Although she said some may point to “poor budget decisions” as a reason for poor public higher education funding, she pointed to Wisconsin’s billions in budget surplus as evidence that the state had more money for higher education.

Wisconsin retained a sizable slice of its record-high budget surplus in the last two-year budget cycle, and the surplus is currently projected at $3.25 billion by the end of the current budget cycle in 2025, according to a January estimate from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Absent more state funding, Shankland said policymakers and the Board of Regents are likely to seek tuition increases as their “only recourse.” She said that shouldn’t be the case. 

“Why in the world are we not having a special session right now, as a Legislature, to put that money into these institutions?” Shankland asked.

Three days after the town hall, UW System President Jay Rothman proposed a systemwide 3.75% resident undergraduate tuition increase.

Campus closures are based on regional divides 

Panelists criticized two-year campus closures, particularly in the light of the budget surplus.

“The Waukesha campus outside of Milwaukee — the entire campus is being shut down at a time when it’s completely unnecessary,” Shelton said.

Shankland said “dividing” two-year and comprehensive campuses from the R1 campuses — UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee — means campuses’ funding potential is left to the political whims of their regions. She noted the passage of a Republican-led bill to award counties that lose two-year campuses up to $2 million to redevelop the campuses’ buildings.

“We have regional legislators playing divide and conquer in the Capitol instead of coming together and saying we have a massive problem in every part of the state where there’s a two- or four-year campus,” Shankland said. 

UW System officials recently marked five two-year campuses for closure — most recently, UW-Milwaukee’s Waukesha campus — pointing to declining state funding. Rothman last fall directed chancellors managing branch campuses to explore new campus building uses with local governments and provide a pathway forward by early spring 2024.

Budget cuts have unequal effects

Shelton and Kraus said UW-Madison has a stronger financial situation than other UW campuses, given UW-Madison is one of three system schools currently without a projected deficit.

“The UW System is treating the two-year schools and the comprehensives quite differently,” Kraus said. 

Shankland noted UW-Madison’s reputation in Wisconsin and the Midwest for “incredible access” to departments, majors and specialties. 

But UW-Madison’s solid fiscal shape isn’t matched across the UW System, she said. 

“Our most rural campuses are the ones getting the least funding and are therefore most likely to go under, and that’s where our attainment levels are the lowest,” Shankland said.

Shankland said sharing “success stories,” like undergraduate research projects, could help strengthen the funding potential of comprehensive universities. 

Cuts to programs at UW campuses beyond Madison and Milwaukee were a concern for the student panelists. Dylan Martinez, a UW-River Falls student, said administrative cuts made to his minor’s department, geographic information systems, made it “much harder to pursue that degree on a normal timescale.”

“I fear for all sorts of degrees and programs that are smaller in nature on campus that will just slowly wither away until there's not much left, or they're completely cut altogether,” Martinez said.

New maps hold potential for funding changes

New state legislative maps — which will be used in races for state representatives and senators this November — could improve the UW System’s public funding prospects, panelists said.

“We have reason for hope with the state budget. We have new legislative lines, we don’t know who’s going to win,” Kraus said. 

Shankland said she doesn’t know an issue “more popular” than funding public education and said statewide conversations should reflect how investing in the UW System could bolster economic growth.

Though Republicans still hold a slight advantage due to geographic distribution of their voters, the maps should give both parties a chance of control, experts said

“It's all about the pocketbook,” Smith said. “So we have got to think in terms of reminding folks home how this affect[s] their day-to-day living.”

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.

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