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UWS faces a new economic reality
Graph: UWS offers the lowest tuition rate in the area, said Chancellor Renée Wachter. (Source: College Navigator)
As a new budget cycle approached early this year, University of Wisconsin-Superior administrators anticipated the campus would receive added revenue from a tuition increase and more money from the UW System.
Then everything changed.
“We found that in the April through May time period, there was a complete reversal. Instead, we received a cut and learned it was going to be permanent,” Chancellor Renée Wachter said at a November breakfast sponsored by BMO Harris Bank and the Small Business Development Center. That was compounded by an enrollment decline of about 100 since the prior year. With tuition costing approximately $8,000 per student, the loss was nearly $800,000.
“These are really interesting times for higher ed. The good, flush days were in the 80s. Things started to tighten down in the 90s, and today it’s a whole new ballgame for what higher education is facing – and that goes for privates, not only public institutions,” she said.
By late May, administrators had announced plans to indefinitely suspend some academic programs. Master’s programs in visual arts, communication arts, library science, reading and reading specialties stopped accepting new students, along with the undergraduate jazz studies program. Existing enrollees were allowed to complete their studies. Additional programs currently are being reviewed, with decisions to be revealed by Dec. 19.
“It’s a time of change. We have to let go of some things, and that’s what we have been doing,” Wachter said in May.
Gov. Scott Walker has made smaller government his mantra, and higher education is smack in the crosshairs at the GOP-controlled legislature. Wachter said people have developed “a distrust of what happens at universities,” possibly fueled by the lengthy conversation about student debt and high tuition costs, even though the high prices are primarily confined to exclusive private universities. Those factors and others have convinced state lawmakers and regents to institute much more conservative spending policies.
“The way they’re behaving has changed dramatically. There’s much closer scrutiny of what universities are doing,” she said. “Legislators are requiring increased transparency. They want to know where our money is and what that money is being spent for.”
The level of detail extends all the way to faculty workload, including which courses individuals teach.
Given the funding changes, UWS faced a $4.5 million deficit that had to be filled by generating new revenue or cutting costs. Public universities have limited options on the revenue front. Enrollment growth is the best option, and UWS has targeted the Twin Cities as the best area to attract more students. A much smaller amount of potential lies in renting facilities such as Wessman Arena.
It’s a tougher challenge to make spending cuts, because employees are affected. The first step affected 27 grounds keeping and custodial workers.
“The reaction was anger, disappointment and frustration,” Wachter said after meeting with them on Nov. 19.
Administrators are negotiating to hire a private firm, Service Solutions Co., to assume those tasks. That would save about $2.5 million during a five-year period, primarily in the area of benefits, said UWS Communications Director Lynne Williams. Some existing employees likely will join the contractor.
The firm has received good reviews at Northland College in Ashland, where it provides services on contract.
“They have seen efficiencies; they have seen some good things come out of it,” said Georgette Koenig, UWS vice chancellor of administration and finance.
System President Ray Cross has outlined new standards for the 13 UW campuses, which he shared during an October address to the Superior-Douglas County Area Chamber of Commerce.
“He said ‘From this day forward, our priority will be to develop the talent and ideas that bring prosperity to Wisconsin,’ ” Wachter said. As part of his plan, “UW Superior won’t be able to automatically receive funding from the system,” she explained. “We’ll have to compete against everyone else, and the basis for how we compete is by tying what we do to economic development and talent development in the region. It’s a very explicit part of this budget plan and a very explicit part of what we do on campus in terms of how we talk about program development, how we talk about student outcomes.”
Providing students the skills that regional employers need is among the points addressed in the Superior Visions 2020 Strategic Plan, which cites the need to provide a quality student experience, develop partnerships, achieve excellence and manage resources. That means the establishment of more internships and boards to provide advice about academic programs.
“We believe that when we partner with our communities, it’s a win-win situation for both,” Wachter said. “The university’s assets can help make the community a better place. It can make it more vibrant – make it thrive.”Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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