MADISON — The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved a plan Thursday to merge the system’s two-year schools with its four-year campuses, brushing aside opponents’ complaints that faculty and students weren’t consulted and the proposal is too vague.
The regents signed off on the plan on a voice vote. State public schools Superintendent Tony Evers and Janice Mueller were the only regents who voted against the plan. They said the process has been rushed and the plan sorely lacks details.
“You say we have to be bold,” Mueller said before the vote. “But we also have to be deliberative.”
System President Ray Cross responded that the details will be sorted out before the merger goes into effect in July. That was good enough for the rest of the regents, who said the board has to move quickly to ensure the two-year schools stay open.
“I see opportunities and say full steam ahead,” Regent Bryan Steil said. “It’s the right thing to do for our students.”
Cross introduced the merger plan in mid-October. It calls for making the system’s 13 two-year schools regional branches of seven four-year schools. Students would still be able to earn associate degrees at the two-year institutions and would get a chance to take third- or fourth-year courses as well, Cross has said.
The plan is designed to make transferring from the two-year campuses to the four-year schools smoother and attract more students to the two-year schools so the institutions can remain open in some form. Enrollment at those institutions has dropped 32 percent since 2010, according to figures Cross presented to the regents Thursday. The number of college-age students in Wisconsin is also expected to dramatically shrink over the next two decades as the state’s population ages, according to the data.
“Clearly, the status quo is not sustainable,” Cross told the board. “We could continue to study this for months or even years ... but the challenges we face will not change.”
The plan also calls for UW-Madison to absorb UW-Extension’s community outreach efforts and system administration to take over UW-Extension’s other divisions, including public broadcasting.
News of the proposal angered students and faculty, who complained that they weren’t consulted as Cross developed the plan. The steering committee that will work through the merger doesn’t contain any faculty or students members. Cross told the regents that including faculty and students on the committee would make the panel too cumbersome. He promised the committee would take input from those groups in the coming months.
“I will not vote for this,” said Evers, who is running as a Democrat against Gov. Scott Walker next year. “A bad process usually leads to bad policy. There are people in the state of Wisconsin who feel they’ve been left behind in this process. Whether that’s reality or perception doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.”
The proposal itself remains fuzzy. As Mueller pointed out, it includes no financial projections or estimates of potential job losses. Cross told reporters Thursday there will be some positions eliminated over time but could offer no specifics.
System officials initially said the two-year schools would lose their names and their associate degrees would bear the name of their affiliated four-year school, but Cross backed off on both of those prospects Thursday. He said local officials are concerned about losing their schools’ identity so they will have input in what happens. As for the degrees, he said they may carry the four-year schools’ name in time.
Also in question is what will become of the two-year schools’ sports teams. System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the intent is to maintain them but no decisions have been made.