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Thursday, May 23, 2024

UW System financial reports spark concern over public higher ed funding

New UW System financial reports highlighted impending financial concerns, but some faculty and students say there’s more to the story.


The University of Wisconsin System released seven reports highlighting impending financial concerns at several universities earlier this month.

The reports, assembled by consulting firm Deloitte, reviewed seven UW System universities: UW-Green Bay, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Parkside, UW-Platteville, UW-River Falls, UW-Superior and UW-Whitewater.

All seven were advised to make a series of campus-specific spending cuts ranging from staff to academic programs.

The findings cast a grim outlook over a university system grappling with years of public funding cuts and declining enrollment. Wisconsin ranks 42nd in the nation in public university funding, according to an April 2023 report from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.

“While we will do our part on the expense side of the ledger, ultimately it is up to the state to decide whether it wants and can afford a weakened Universities of Wisconsin,” Rothman said in a statement last week. “The adage is that you get what you pay for.” 

Rothman called for more funding from the state Legislature and said making ends meet “on the backs” of faculty and staff “should not have to continue.”

But some students and staff at those universities worry it will.

“We're [treated like] just a corporation, where can we cut costs and where can we raise revenues and basically put it more on the students, which of course will only end up hurting enrollments,” Neil Kraus, political science professor at UW-River Falls and president of United Falcons, the local American Federation of Teachers (AFT) chapter, told The Daily Cardinal.

A professor at River Falls for nearly 20 years, Kraus has long been a vocal critic of “austerity,” or policies to reduce government budget deficits through spending cuts, in public education. 

Kraus said he felt the UW-System paying Deloitte $2.8 million for their report is another example of austerity. He said the UW System seems to implicitly — and to some degree, explicitly — expect decreases in public funding and increased privatization, calling the cuts “political decisions.”  

UW-River Falls has already started a series of spending cuts, including implementing a hiring freeze as well as merging the College of Business and Economics and College of Education and Professional Studies. Some members of a budget advisory committee at the university said in March they worried about program suspensions.

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As positions go vacant, Kraus worries liberal arts majors will “die on the vine” at UW-River Falls. 

“That's much easier, because then you don't have to have a debate on the merits — at any level — about whether or not we ought to have this major or that major,” Kraus said.

Students also expressed concern about their campus’ financial future. At UW-Oshkosh, The Advance-Titan student newspaper published op-eds from students, including editor-in-chief Anya Kelley, criticizing layoffs and lack of transparency.

Jack Schindler Van Hoof, a third-year UW-River Falls student and editor of the Student Voice, UW-River Falls’ student newspaper, described the current mood on campus as the “calm before the storm.”

“I feel like there's a lot they aren't telling us. And this is true for all universities, I guess, but specifically, we were expecting so much more from the reports than the limited, 17-page PDF we got,” Van Hoof told the Cardinal.

Campuses already feeling budget woes

The UW System Board of Regents adopted a strategic plan in 2022 which called for eliminating “structural deficits” — expenses that exceed current revenue streams — at all system universities by 2028. 

In the years since, several UW campuses, including many listed in Deloitte’s recent report, have implemented sweeping cuts.

At UW-Oshkosh, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt implemented a “dramatic reduction in expenses” in October, including laying off close to 200 employees. The university announced mergers between several of its colleges in February as an additional cost-saving measure.

UW-Parkside and UW-Platteville also announced layoffs in November and October, respectively. And despite record-high enrollment at Green Bay, university administrators laid off nine staff members last fall and proposed ending majors in dance, economics, environmental policy and theater in October.

Jon Shelton, professor of democracy and justice studies at UW-Green Bay and AFT-Wisconsin president, said faculty and staff are “deeply frustrated” the UW System chose “to listen to outside consultants” rather than those already on campuses. 

Students and faculty have advised UW System campuses on budget advisory committees and during sessions with Deloitte, according to the reports.

“No one's saying that university should stay static until the end of time,” Shelton said. For him, the issue is the UW System “taking austerity as a given” and putting the burden on professors instead of state government.

Financial reports from the remaining universities, excluding UW-Madison, which didn’t have a report, will be available later this year, according to the UW System.

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Nick Bumgardner

Nick Bumgardner is a staff writer with The Daily Cardinal covering state news and politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickbum_.

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