University of Wisconsin campus closures hit communities hard | Education |

The Fond du Lac campus in the Universities of Wisconsin system runs in Matthew Caine’s family.

Both his dad and brother are Fond du Lac alumni. Five of his six uncles attended the school. It’s where his dad met his mom.

“If it wasn’t for this college, I wouldn’t be here,” said Caine, who recently completed his first semester at the campus, a satellite of UW Oshkosh. Within his first year, he became involved in Fond du Lac’s student government, serving as one of three student senators, and even started his own jazz club.

Yet the campus will soon cease to exist, leaving Caine out of options to attend a UW school close to home. In October, Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman directed UW-Milwaukee and UW Oshkosh to end classes at their branch campuses in Washington County and Fond du Lac.

Though the UW system is struggling with millions of dollars in structural deficits, Rothman said the decision was not a cost-cutting measure but instead driven by dwindling enrollment.

On Friday, a third campus was added to the closure list. UW-Green Bay Chancellor Mike Alexander announced the Marinette campus will end its in-person instruction, too. The college offered only 14 in-person classes and enrolled 213 students this fall, the chancellor wrote in an email to employees.

“Despite initial enrollment gains, we recognize that persisting on the current path will inevitably lead to closure,” Alexander said. “Instead of waiting for a closure, we have chosen to proactively rethink our approach to maintain a meaningful presence in Marinette.”

The approaching shutdown of local universities has left county leaders scrambling to figure out what to do with the empty facilities in which the campuses are located. Students have been forced to find alternative plans to complete their education. And the campuses’ employees have been left wondering whether they’ll still have jobs.

Enrollment at the Washington County and Fond du Lac campuses has dropped precipitously over the decade. In 2010, Washington County had 1,054 students. The school is now down to 276 students — a nearly 75% decline. At Fond du Lac, 733 students were enrolled in 2010. The campus currently has an estimated 243 students.

When the three campuses cease classes at the end of the school year, there will be just nine of 14 UW system branch campuses remaining. UW-Medford in Taylor County was the first school axed in 1980. This fall, Rothman also said UW-Platteville’s Richland Center campus would officially close after receiving a similar directive as Washington County and Fond du Lac in 2022. When Rothman ordered the end to its in-person instruction, Richland Center had just 60 students.

While the UW system initially said it would maintain a presence in Richland Center, UW administrators and county officials failed to come to an agreement on how to continue using the campus, leading the system to officially shutter it.

Other closures could come soon, with Rothman ordering chancellors to evaluate the viability of the remaining two-year campuses and to determine future options with local governments that own the buildings in which classes are offered.

“So many people here need these places,” Caine said of the two-year campuses. “Telling us that we have to close (Fond du Lac) gave people an immediate sense of anger, and there’s still a sense of sadness knowing that we’re marching on to the end.”

Students left with few options

For some, the closure of the schools came as no surprise, given the campuses’ small enrollment numbers, news of structural deficits, and mass furloughs and layoffs at UW Oshkosh in the fall. Still, to Ben Kannenberg, a Washington County student, the announcement felt abrupt.

Hoping to save money and be closer to his parents in West Bend, he enrolled at Washington County last January after failing out of UW-Madison in 2021.

Kannenberg prefers Washington County’s smaller classes and the individual time he receives with his professors. At UW-Madison, most of his courses were held in big lecture halls, which often intimidated him.

It’s not lost on Kannenberg that many of his peers might stop pursuing higher education altogether. Those who attend Marinette, Washington County or Fond du Lac often come from smaller towns and rural areas, said Paisley Harris, a Fond du Lac history professor. Some are nontraditional students seeking degrees later in life, and many choose to attend a two-year school because they need more academic support or are low-income.

“I was planning on transferring out sometime over the next year or so anyway,” Kannenberg said. “But it was really emotionally charged thinking about the people who rely on this campus, and realizing that if somebody else ran into the same kind of problems I had (at UW-Madison), then they wouldn’t have such an easy path back into getting an education. They won’t get that opportunity.”

There are few options left to receive a liberal arts degree in Marinette, Fond du Lac or Washington County. With approval from the UW Board of Regents, Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac began offering liberal arts associate’s degrees two years ago, allowing students to more easily transfer to a four-year school. But the college’s primary focus is on technical studies.

At a student apartment complex next to the Fond du Lac campus’ main building, property manager Hunter Wilson said the number of UW students renting at the Vue apartments has continued to dwindle.

When the apartments opened in 2018, Fond du Lac students leased a majority of the units. Now, only 10% to 15% of tenants are UW students, Wilson estimated. The company has since switched its website to market the apartments as housing for Moraine Park Technical College students.

Kannenberg plans to eventually apply to UW-Milwaukee, but dreads the thought of the 40-mile commute, especially after Washington County ended its 24-year-old transit service to and from Milwaukee this fall.

“I think we’re getting to a point where you have to accept it, you have to deal with it, but also there’s a sense that it didn’t have to be this way,” he said. “There have been so many problems and mistakes with the way people have been running everything that it just makes you feel a little bitter about it.”

Employees fear for the future

The students who spoke with the Cap Times voiced even greater concerns about their instructors, many of whom have spent a majority of their careers teaching at the branch campuses.

Harris, the Fond du Lac professor, has worked on campus for 21 years. She chose to take a voluntary retirement incentive before UW Oshkosh cut over 200 non-faculty employees and administrators this fall — about 14% of its workforce — and furloughed all others.

UW Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt has promised Fond du Lac faculty jobs on the Oshkosh campus next year, Harris said. Those on the Washington County campus, however, are still awaiting news about what will happen to their positions.

Hoping to avoid what she saw as a looming closure at the Marshfield campus of UW-Stevens Point, Christine Klingbiel moved to West Bend to become a lecturer in Washington County’s English department three years ago. Budget cuts had brought an end to a program in which she was teaching at Marshfield. She felt the Washington County campus would be more stable.

Yet Klingbiel is again worried she might be left without a job. She said she hasn’t heard from any administrators about their plans for the campus’ current employees.

Her sister attended Washington County in the 1980s, and Klingbiel recalls it as a vibrant school with dances, theater and many local students. While the UW system has pointed to changing demographics and fewer young people as part of the reason Washington County needed to close, Klingbiel finds that hard to believe. In fact, the community is growing. In the ’80s, about 85,000 people lived in the county, compared with its current population of nearly 138,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Both Harris and Klingbiel point to budgetary factors that have made it difficult to recruit more students over the years. UW Oshkosh is facing an $18 million structural deficit, and UW-Milwaukee stands to have the largest projected deficit of the UW schools at $18.8 million.

Alexander, the UW-Green Bay chancellor, said administrators “experimented and tried to find the right collection of offerings” at Marinette, as well as its other campuses in Manitowoc and Sheboygan. While those efforts have put the other two satellites on a path toward stability, he said, “Marinette has not experienced the same trajectory.”

“We acknowledge this will be a painful transition for those in Marinette that have endured countless campus management changes, but we must embrace a new model rather than trying to cling to the past,” Alexander said. “It is our job to be responsible stewards of our resources.”

Years of frozen tuition and budget cuts by the state Legislature have also made it difficult for two-year campuses to grow their enrollment. The branch campuses’ merger with the main campuses hasn’t helped either, Klingbiel said. While the 2018 merger was intended to keep the smaller schools afloat, she said the branch campuses have received few resources from the larger campuses.

Employees are now feeling stranded by the UW system and President Rothman, Harris said. In announcing the Fond du Lac and Washington County closures in October, Rothman said “the market is telling us that the mission of the two-year branch campuses is not as attractive to prospective students as it once was.”

“I don’t think he really values the two-year campuses and sees them as only offering associate’s degrees — but that’s not our only mission,” Harris said. “I would really like to see him look into the two-year system instead of just giving up on it.”

“I think it’s just going to be a terrible loss to the community,” she added. “I feel like (Rothman’s) reason for closing the Fond du Lac and Washington County campuses was not really well thought-out. It was really based on not knowing our campuses.”

Rothman declined an interview request from the Cap Times. In a statement, UW system spokesman Mark Pitsch said the discussions surrounding the closures have involved “various stakeholders.”

“The goal is to determine the best way to serve the communities and to provide long-term stability,” he said. “As the president stated last fall, the status quo is not sustainable. UW-Milwaukee and UW Oshkosh are working on plans for those campuses that best serve our students and these communities.”

Counties determine next steps

With the imminent closure of the three UW campuses, the responsibility has fallen on the counties to pick up the pieces. The schools’ facilities are owned by the counties in which they’re located, and the Universities of Wisconsin leases those buildings. The current agreements call for the UW system to continue leasing the Marinette, Fond du Lac and Washington County campuses until 2042 at $1 per year.

Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann said he has received significant interest from those interested in taking over the lease, but no concrete plans have been made. He’s recently started working with the mayor of West Bend and leaders at UW-Milwaukee and Moraine Park Technical College to determine the future of higher education in the county.

One idea, he said, was to merge the Washington County campus with Moraine Park. But a UW-Milwaukee task force eventually advised against it in an August report.

“It’s really, really disappointing to have University of Wisconsin leaving. It’s unfortunate that we lose that resource for our community, both academically and economically,” he said. “I think the community at large is going through a bit of mourning for the loss of that campus and trying to remain optimistic about something new and different.”

The Marinette campus will continue to offer online courses, invest further in its Herb Williams Theatre and work with Marinette County to “ensure that we can make great use of the infrastructure,” said Alexander, the UW-Green Bay chancellor.

Fond du Lac County Executive Sam Kaufman said the county is entering negotiations with the UW system this month to come to an agreement on its lease. He’s floated turning the campus’ gymnasium into a community sports center, potentially using the adjacent field as a new soccer stadium and taking advantage of the empty buildings by offering events for the community.

Rothman’s directive to close the Fond du Lac campus made sense to Kaufman from an economic standpoint, he said. But he’s concerned about finding the money to maintain the buildings after UW exits its lease. He recently spoke in support of a bill proposed by Republicans, which would require the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to offer Richland County, Fond du Lac County and Washington County grants of up to $2 million each.

The bill allocates $12 million total to help redevelop communities with shuttered UW campuses. The remaining $6 million is set aside for future closures.

Source: University of Wisconsin campus closures hit communities hard | Education |