Wednesday, October 11, 2017

UW restructuring could work, but anti-intellectual righties are the real problem

I saw the headlines start to filter out last night about some possible changes going on at the UW System that would go on top of the “free speech” restrictions that the Board of Regents just passed. And sure enough, the UW System released a statement today explaining those proposed changes, which will go in front of the Regents next month.
UW System President Ray Cross announces he will propose merging UW Colleges with four-year UW institutions as part of a broader restructuring of UW Colleges and UW-Extension. There are currently 13 two-year UW Colleges campuses located statewide. Under his proposal, Cross will propose integrating UW Colleges campuses into UW four-year institutions, effective July 1, 2018. Cross will also propose assigning divisions within UW-Extension to UW-Madison and UW System Administration. The restructuring proposal will come before the Board of Regents in November seeking approval to proceed with implementation planning.
My immediate reaction was “Oh God, now what?” Cross, and the Walker-selected Board of Regents in general are not to be trusted, and anything that they say is a “reform” is something that should be treated with immense skepticism.

But there is a legitimate problem with declining enrollment, which is down 37% at the on-site UW College campuses since 2010. This is on top of the budget cuts and tuition freezes which already restrain revenue, so it makes sense that something needed to be done to stem that tide.

So I wanted to take a step back and see what the overall idea was. Let’s look at the objectives behind these modifications, starting with the first three listed.

Maintaining and expanding access to higher education by offering more general education and upper-level courses at the integrated branch campuses

Identify and reduce barriers to transferring credits within the UW System.

Maintain affordability by continuing current tuition levels at the branch campuses post-merger for general education courses.
Here’s a look at the map that helps explain which Colleges would be aligned with specific 4-year campuses.

Those aren’t bad ideas on their own, although the concept of “integrated branch campuses” is a bit confusing. Does this mean that (for example) UW-Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and Marinette would now be sort of a “UW-Green Bay Junior”, where you can theoretically take classes at for the next 4 years but get a GB degree? Similar to how Madison Area Technical College allows students to take classes in numerous communities outside of Madison? But if this makes it easier for credits to transfer between campuses, that’s good flexibility for students, and likely speeds students through the system faster, which likely helps students, businesses and the campuses.

I’m not sure what the “current tuition levels at the branch campuses” means. Would it be cheaper to go to these “junior campuses” than the main one, and clear a back-door way to allow for tuition increases at the main 4-year campuses? My instinct says yes, but we’ll see where this goes.

In looking at the map, it seems odd that four campuses don’t have a “feeder College” - River Falls, Stout, Superior and Madison. The Madison part makes sense, because Madison should be in a different category for most things involving the UW System - it’s a 4-year on-campus research school with by far the most enrollment, and has major outside funding sources, and a much larger out-of-state enrollment.

But what happens to those other 3 relatively smaller campuses in the western edge of the state? The fact that Cross’s statement promotes not having to close any of the Colleges’ campuses but is silent on the 4-year campuses is concerning. Although it is possible that they consider River Falls, Stout and Superior to be regional campuses that don’t need a feeder, and with no 2-year College in those areas, there is little point in assigning a feeder school. I’m willing to give Cross the benefit of the doubt on this one and think those schools are in the clear for now.

But so far, it actually seems pretty sensible. The red flags I see comes from Cross making a statement about “aligning the university to meet Wisconsin’s projected workforce needs.” That sure sounds like he’s referring to Assembly Speaker Robbin’ Vos’s wish to turn the System into UW Tech, which would de-emphasize humanities and other majors that use creativity, honest research and analysis.

The other part I roll my eyes at is this statement from Cross.
“By 2040, nearly 95% of total population growth in Wisconsin will be age 65 and older, while those of working age 18-64 will increase a mere 0.4%. Our labor force growth will be flat, while the demand for an educated labor force is growing exponentially,” said Cross. “We must plan for the future now and be increasingly bold in our efforts to get more students through the educational pipeline to help meet Wisconsin’s needs. We must do this by improving access to higher education and keeping it affordable for students and families.”
You want to know what fights off some of those demographic problems, Ray? Making Wisconsin a state that attracts younger people to attend school and live in after college. And the Walker-selected Board of Regents just went the entire opposite direction, with their passage of the “wingnut welfare safe space” speech code last week.

What do you think prospective students and young talent think when they see reactions like this coming from other parts of the country?

UW-Madison knows those sorts of tweets and the related headlines are damaging to their brand and their competitiveness, which is why they’re going out their way to distance themselves from the speech codes.

But a right-wing apologist like Ray Cross won’t dare tell Governor Dropout and the WisGOP Legislature that one of the best ways to combat Wisconsin’s demographic problems is to invest in and promote the UW System instead of demonizing it, and to start practicing responsible governance that helps the state instead of playing political games by playing to resentment-filled, low-educated white guys.

Look, this restructuring could well be a good thing, and an efficient way to deal with declining enrollment at the UW Colleges without losing access to higher education in many of Wisconsin’s communities. But it doesn’t change the underlying problem of disrespect and disinvestment of the UW by the ALEC crew at the Capitol and inside of the Board of Regents, which damages the reputation of the state and the university in the minds of the people they need to get. And that trend won’t go away until the people approving of this anti-intellectual agenda go away.


  1. Lots to comment on here. First, What informed this decision, other than declining enrollments? Was there any kind of review of alternatives? Why does it come as a surprise to faculty and staff? This is a major disruption, especially with the provision, revealed in the Journal Sentinel, that faculty members with tenure may be transferred from one campus to another in a cluster. If I were teaching at UW-M and got sent to teach at Waukesha or Washington County, do had no grad students, I would be pretty pissed off. Seems to be breach of contract, by redefining the hiring organization. What about UW-Superior? That is the 4-year campus that is really struggling--this plan cuts it off further, by not associating it with a 2-year campus. As a prof on the Madison campus pointed out, the UW merger took years of planning. Ray Cross just proclaims and says implementation will be "worked out." All those great business leaders among the regents have themselves a pretty poor executive, it seems.

    1. Very good points/questions. If this is a back-door way to make instructors be more "flexible" and go to multiple campuses, you will see people leave in droves. You wouldn't impose that crap on high performers in other jobs based out of a particular site.

      Also a good point about Superior, as it's the smallest 4-year campus as it is. If you wanted to restructure, wouldn't you want to do something to help their situation (maybe by having a nearby College or Tech School agreement somewhere else in the Northwoods)?

      Yeah, the secrecy behind this is a definite flag. Lots of details that need to be revealed in the next month, and then they're going to make this change for the next school year? That seems to be an "action ahead of execution" mentality, and that rarely works well.

  2. I am informed by a reader that I didn't mention La Crosse as one of the campuses with no feeder schools. Which is interesting since La Crosse seems to be one of the few campuses doing well recently (maybe they don't need the help?)

    PS- Great "forgot about Dre" reference from the reader, especially after Eminem's brutal takedown,of Trump this week.

  3. UW-Parkside, which is just outside of Kenosha, also has no feeder schools.