Leaders at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are criticizing the system president's plan to consolidate services and trim programs at its regional public colleges.
The proposal calls for all campuses, except for its research universities, UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, to review their academic offerings by mid-January, opening up the possibility of program cuts and staff layoffs.
The potential downsizing highlights the vulnerabilities regional colleges face because of the pandemic.
Nationwide, public systems' finances will be stressed as they brace for an anticipated downturn in state support and other hits to their budgets as a result of the pandemic.
The University of Wisconsin System is not immune to these factors. And so system President Ray Cross, citing declining state investments and already-stunted tuition revenue, released a blueprint for the system last week that entails the academic cuts. Cross told local news media that layoffs are "inevitable," but didn't specify their scope or how many programs would be scaled back.
The system would adopt a "unified" approach for online education with the intent to enroll more working adult students, according to the proposal. The plan would also streamline administrative services, such as information technology, to be under the system's purview by January 2022. UW is at the tail end of another major merger, in which its two-year colleges were folded into its four-year institutions.
The state's faculty union, unsurprisingly, blasted the proposal for failing to incorporate elements of shared governance. It also drew an unusual rebuke from one of its chancellors, UW-Eau Claire's Jim Schmidt, as well as the university's provost and high-ranking instructors and student leaders. The group outlined its concerns with the proposal in a memo obtained by Education Dive that was sent to faculty staff and students on Monday.
They wrote that while the plan assumes swift changes are needed for the system's non-research colleges to remain financially viable, UW-Eau Claire "does not fit this scenario."
"While the pandemic will cause sacrifice, we are actively making collaborative decisions that will enable us to weather the crisis without UW System intervention," they added, also criticizing the proposed online education expansion for lacking "clarity and a purposeful goal."
Neither UW-Eau Claire nor system representatives responded to Education Dive's requests for comment by press time.
The fact that the plan targets regional colleges is significant, said Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at University of North Carolina Wilmington. UW's prominent research universities are likely dodging reforms because of their influence within the system, he said.
Across the U.S., these types of consolidation plans and budget cuts will most affect regional publics because they can't bring in the same revenue as their flagship and large research counterparts. When Moody's Investors Service in March downgraded the higher ed sector's outlook, it noted that the colleges already in a financially precarious position would have more difficulty surviving.
Big research institutions get more donations and can often generate more money from their athletics programs, which can cushion them from shrinking state funding, McClure said. Regional publics also tend to be viewed as lacking a "distinct mission," he added, though they are often key economic engines and employers for the surrounding area.
The financial struggles within Wisconsin's regional schools can be traced back to state budget cuts, McClure said. Wisconsin had one of the steepest declines in state funding in the country between fiscal years 2013 and 2018, according to a report last year from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
More cuts are likely coming. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced late last month the state would cut spending by 5% in light of the pandemic. Many other states are considering similar reductions, precipitating furloughs, layoffs and other cutbacks within colleges.