UW President Rothman talks branch closures, DEI deal, and financial challenges

MILWAUKEE — Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman spoke at the Milwaukee Press Club’s Newsmaker Luncheon Tuesday.

The UW System leader talked about the current state of the system and looked forward to what’s to come.

“We are all focused on the same thing. And that is student success. We have a long way, certainly encountering some headwinds in being successful, but we are going to work through it,” Rothman said to a full house at the Newsroom Pub.

Rothman took questions from a panel of journalists and touched on many topics that have made headlines in recent months, including antisemitism on campus, a controversial DEI deal, and branches closing.

Branch Closures

Most recently, the UW-Green Bay Marinette branch announced they would be ending in-person classes after the spring 2024 semester. That will make it the fourth branch campus to stop in-person classes or stop altogether.

“We had to accept what was market reality. The attendance at those campuses have dropped drastically in the past 10 years, far more than any of our universities. We have to accept consumers aren’t looking at those branch campuses the way they once were.”

UW-Milwaukee at Washington County and UW-Oshkosh Fond du Lac are also ending traditional programming at the end of the spring, UW System officials announced in October. UW-Platteville Richland officially closed last year.

“If you’re in a branch campus, or somewhere hard to reach, online availability has changed the landscape,” Rothman explained, crediting low enrollment for the closures. He added they had a financial responsibility to adapt.

Rothman said he asked each campus’ chancellor to review enrollment to determine the future of other branches.

Financial Struggles

Along with the struggles facing branches, Rothman said 10 of the 13 UW campuses currently have a structural deficit, spending more than they are bringing in.

“As a result, we are having to make hard choices at some of our campus including furloughs, buy outs and layoffs.”

He hopes to eliminate those deficits by 2028 through increased investment, especially at the federal level.

DEI Deal

Rothman also touched on the funding deal passed last month that will limit DEI initiatives in exchange for money to cover staff raises and construction projects.

“We’ve been very clear about our core values around inclusivity and belonging and they have not changed. We are absolutely committed to this and we want to make this work because it’s important,” Rothman explained.

He said the want to increase the number of underrepresented students in their universities as well as close the retention and graduation rate gaps between underrepresented and majority students.

Former UW-La Crosse chancellor

When asked about former UW-La Crosse chancellor Dr. Joe Gow, Rothman said he made a complaint, but that ultimately, it was up to the campus’ own chancellor to make a decision on the status of his faculty position.

Dr. Joe Gow was terminated from his role as chancellor after it was discovered he was making sexually explicit and pornographic content with his wife.

“I think it was an utter failure of leadership. We expect our chancellors to be role models for our students and communities, and I think he failed in that with what he was doing,” Rothman said.

The press club’s Newsmaker Luncheons are held to inform the public about the people and issues that affect individuals and communities in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

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