Democratic Lawmaker Pushes Red Herring on UW Merger Plan

If demographics are destiny, then the announcement this week by University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

Due in large part to smaller families and declining birth rates, enrollment is declining throughout the UW System. As a result, the UW’s 13 two-year colleges have been hardest hit by this new reality.

In the last year alone, they’ve seen an enrollment decline of 22.3%. So to deal with this decline, President Cross announced this week a plan to merge the UW colleges into their nearby four-year universities. This will turn the two-year schools into branch campuses for the bigger schools while allowing them to remain open.

University of Wisconsin System officials are pursuing a plan to merge the state’s two-year UW Colleges with its four-year institutions, turning the 13 small schools into branch campuses of the larger universities.


The wide-ranging restructuring plan System President Ray Cross announced Wednesday would also bring UW Extension programs under new administration.


Cross described the plan, which he will bring to UW’s governing Board of Regents for approval in November, as a way to address declining enrollment in the UW Colleges — where the number of full-time equivalent students has dropped by 32 percent between 2010 and this fall — without closing any campuses. Enrollment at UW-Madison is up slightly over that period but down at some other four-year campuses.

Cross is certain the merger will have no effect on student performance or their ability to obtain their degrees. He does anticipate a number of administrators will be out luck as their positions will be eliminated because of redundancy.

With such forward thinking in light of declining enrollment and changing state demographics, you’d think everyone would be reasonable with what Cross is planning. Not so as Thursday brought forth criticism from State Senator Janet Bewley (D-Delta), who blamed the merger on GOP budget cuts and the Foxconn deal.

For the second time in just over two years, GOP budget cuts have taken aim at Northern Wisconsin and UW-Barron County, Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Delta) noted today. A reorganization plan announced yesterday would spell the end of not just UW Barron County as we know it, but all of Wisconsin’s 13 independent two-year campuses.

“Local leaders are in the best position to know what they need for an educated workforce. Local officials I’ve spoken with are distraught by the proposed reduction in local control over the UW Barron County campus that their community built and pays for,” Bewley said. “What this plan says to the young people of Northern Wisconsin is ‘Look South,’ and that’s not right. What’s worse, I fear this decision will be followed by cut after cut, year after year, to pay for the $3 Billion Foxconn deal and other southeastern Wisconsin priorities.”

Officials in Madison announced their plan to wrest control of 13 two-year campuses from local communities and consolidate them with four-year campuses without consulting Northern community or business leaders. “Deciding to hand control of the UW-Barron County campus over to UW Eau Claire without consulting the people who have contributed to, and rely on UW Barron County, is yet another slap in the face to northern Wisconsin citizens. They deserve better,” said Bewley. Current law allows the University Systems’ Board of Regents to approve the plan without legislative input, and they are hoping to pass it next month. Bewley encouraged Barron County citizens and businesses to make their views known before the Regents’ final action in November.

Bewley noted that two-year campuses impacted by today’s announcement primarily serve smaller communities and are vital to workforce training and economic development in communities left behind by the recent Foxconn deal. “Northern Wisconsin shouldn’t lose its beloved UW-Barron County because the GOP has to make cuts here to pay for their priorities elsewhere.”

While the state senator can be lauded for sticking up for northern Wisconsin, both her facts and criticisms are misguided.

For starters, UW-Eau Claire is about an hour’s drive from the UW-Barron County campus in Rice Lake. While not next-door neighbors, the distance between the two campuses isn’t so out the way for any student or administrator who needs to travel between the two locations. Nor is it the farthest UW two-year college from its “mother school” as both the UW-Marinette and UW-Sheboygan campuses were made branches of UW-Green Bay.

Secondly, Bewley is fighting for a shrinking constituency. According to the UW-System’s most recently available record, there are less than 500 students in attendance at UW-Barron County. That’s a figure down considerably from the start of the decade, when just over 700 students matriculated at the campus.

Finally, the route to this decision started years ago long before the Republicans took over state government and the Foxconn deal was negotiated. It might make for great press release fodder and an easily political target, but it’s completely ignorant of the facts on the ground. Families in Wisconsin are simply having less children and anyone paying attention to the number of high school graduates in the state’s K-12 school could see this eventually was going to mean fewer and fewer college applicants.

With fewer and fewer available students in the applicant pool, decreases number of incoming freshmen have begun to appear at most of the state’s four-year universities. Early estimates for the 2016-17 academic year have already assumed as much as 5,000 student decrease system-wide (roughly 2 percent) from the previous year. This year, it’s expected to be another 2,500 students.

It’s a trend which will only get worse as demographers believe by 2040 the greatest population growth in Wisconsin’s population will be those 65 and older.

Current demographics suggest an aging state population and a decline in the state’s birthrate.

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%, according to demographic predictions.

These numbers make a reorganization of the UW-System not only timely, but unavoidable. Especially if the system wants to maintain the level of quality it has obtained over the decades.

All of which raises the question: Is Bewley truly looking out for the students at UW-Barron County, or the administrators who work there?