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Monday, June 24, 2024
UW-Platteville Richland

Courtesy of UW-Platteville Richland 

1 year after Richland: How a rural Wisconsin community reckons with losing their university

Former UW-Platteville Richland students and faculty feel hopeless after the closure of their university. But some hope to keep the university’s ties alive.

For Jackson Kinney, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland is in his DNA.

His grandparents graduated from UW-Richland in the 1960s when it was just a teacher’s college. In the 1990s, his father attended. And when his sophomore year wrapped up in 2023, Jackson was the third and final generation to attend.

Now, Kinney is a senior at UW-La Crosse, but when he visits his family farm in Richland County, feelings of “disappointment” are hard to escape.

“It’s just a constant reminder when you go by there now that this place has served so many people — literally for my family generations. Now, it seems like it's just sitting there rotting for no good reason,” Kinney told The Daily Cardinal. “There's a big, important part of the community missing, and it's really hard to come to terms with.”

Kinney’s not alone. For nearly two years, the Richland community has been left to grapple with an increasingly common issue in Wisconsin: losing a university.

In November 2022, the UW System ordered UW-Richland to close its 135 acre campus.

The order to close Richland, a branch campus of UW-Platteville, followed years of declining enrollment, according to the UW System. By the time UW-Richland closed, just 54 students were enrolled, a roughly 90% reduction from 2014, when enrollment was 567 students.

Students and staff rallied to “save” the UW-Richland campus in 2023 — organizing town halls, circulating a petition and meeting with UW System President Jay Rothman — but were ultimately unsuccessful.

“We went into these meetings knowing we don't have that much of a shot,” said Brody Smith, a former UW-Richland student and junior at UW-Whitewater. “But when we got there and we were shooting our shot, and we were talking to the people, it almost felt like we didn't have a shot at all.”

Unsuccessful negotiations leave gap in the community

In-person instruction officially concluded with the 2023 spring semester. According to Richland County Board Chair David Turk, it’s left a “void” in their community and economy.

“Students were definitely integrated as part of our community. They worked part-time jobs in local businesses. They were customers in stores. They were participating in not just campus events but community events,” Turk said.

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After the order, UW system officials maintained a presence on the campus.

In June 2023, the UW System authorized a $150,000 sale of East Hall, a former academic building on campus, from the county to the local school district.

UW System officials negotiated with the local government for months, trying to create a future plan for the campus.

But that came to an abrupt end this April. In a letter to the Richland County Board of Supervisors, the UW System announced it will completely vacate the UW-Richland campus by July 1, 2024.

The move is the final nail in UW-Richland’s coffin, turning the vacant campus over to the county and ending public higher education in Richland Center.

Turk said much of the community is “up in arms,” with some feeling “betrayed” by the decision.

The campus is still owned by Richland County and is part of a 75-year lease agreement between the county and the UW Board of Regents which isn’t set to expire until 2042. Under the agreement, the county maintains the property while the UW System provides “adequate instructional and administrative staff” to operate a branch campus. 

Without a functioning campus or future plans with the UW-System, the county faces a “potential economic crisis,” County Administrator Candace Pesch said in a statement.

In their letter, the UW System suggested the county apply for a recently-created $2 million state grant program directed at redeveloping former branch campuses. The county has been researching the grant for months, and while Turk looks forward to reimagining the property, he’s concerned they got to this point.

“We were never under the impression that [the grant] was intended to absolve UW of any responsibility for upholding its agreements. It seems we have a difference of opinion in that regard,” Turk said.

UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch did not address the status of the lease but said in an email to the Wisconsin State Journal the decision to vacate “comes after about two years of discussion with Richland County elected, community and business leaders without a resolution.”

Reflection and ‘denial’ 

For more than 30 years, Marnie Dresser taught English at UW-Richland. Starting there in 1992, the college accounted for much of her professional life.

“It was an amazing place to be a teacher,” Dresser said.

When UW-Richland closed, Dresser retired with it. Now, at 58, she lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where she cares for her aging parents and stays busy with creative writing.

But it wasn’t until the end of April that she cleaned out her Richland Center office.

“I just sort of was procrastinating and living in denial,” Dresser said.

For Dresser, the closure came with mixed emotions.

“Weirdly, part of it was relief,” Dresser said. “When they kept taking resources away from us to be able to recruit and do the things we needed to do to get students there, as the enrollment dropped below 100, and then dropped to 75, and then dropped to 60, that’s just not a real campus,” she said.

At the same time, it was a moment marked by grief.

“It didn’t have to be that way,” Dresser said, underlining Wisconsin’s multi-billion dollar surplus.

Jake Steele, a Richland Center native and a member of UW-Richland’s final graduating class, vividly remembers when he heard about the university’s closure. 

“I woke up in the morning to my friend calling me, and we just sat there on the phone, basically in silence. We couldn't even believe it,” Steele said.

When he reflects on his time at UW-Richland, Steele said the college was the “perfect choice.”

“It allowed me to figure out what I wanted to do, start off slow, kind of just get into the college environment, start taking courses, see what interests me. It also allowed me to be a little bit more open as well,” Steele said.

A statewide trend 

UW-Richland was the first branch campus to close since UW-Medford shuttered in 1980, but it won’t be the last. Since 2023, the UW System has marked four other campuses for closure.

In October 2023, UW System ordered closures at UW-Milwaukee’s Washington County campus and UW-Oshkosh’s Fond du Lac campus. This decision followed an earlier directive from Rothman to explore the long-term viability of the branch campuses. 

Three months later, UW-Green Bay’s Marinette campus announced the end of in-person instruction. And UW-Milwaukee announced the closure of its Waukesha campus in March 2024.

By the end of the spring 2025 term, just 8 of 13 branch campuses will remain.

As more extension campuses get the ax, Smith worries what it could mean for other communities like his. He said two-year campuses are located in places for underprivileged students who can’t otherwise pursue higher education due to financial or geographic constraints. 

“There are some people that literally the only chance they have of getting any sort of higher education is to find a two-year campus or a smaller college that is close to them,” Smith said. “I know people from Richland that literally stopped going to college after that.”

For other communities like Richland, Turk issued a warning.

“Certainly for other communities that have two-year campuses: be talking about this now, proactively, because I believe your time is coming,” Tusk said.

‘Memories are forever’

With the UW System closing the door on future graduates at UW-Richland, some in the community are working to keep the memory alive.

On April 27, UW-Richland’s Roadrunner Gym played host to men’s and women’s alumni basketball games. The event was part of Homecoming, one of two annual events put on by the  UW-Richland Campus Alumni Association.

“The day is usually filled with fond memories, smiles and, unfortunately for the players, sore muscles,” said Elizabeth Deitelhoff, a 2013 graduate and Homecoming Committee chair.

In years past, the event was built around a simple, evergreen theme: “once a Roadrunner, always a Roadrunner.”

This year, the closure prompted a new theme: “doors are closed, memories are forever.”

“It’s important to keep these memories alive due to the generations and decades of families that received a great education or start to education and careers at a small local campus,” Deitelhoff said. 

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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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