After DEI feud, panel will scrutinize University of Wisconsin’s future | Education |

Following a showdown between the Legislature and Universities of Wisconsin over funding last winter, a new group will study the future of the state’s public universities and issue recommendations.

The legislative study committee includes lawmakers, business leaders and professors among its 18 members, who will contemplate a range of issues facing public higher education in Wisconsin. Those topics are expected to vary from state funding levels to declining enrollment to the possibility of separating UW-Madison from the rest of the UW system.

The group will meet a handful of times, starting on July 11. Typically, these types of committees are intended to be a nonpartisan forum for crafting policy ideas that can be considered by legislators when they return to Madison next year.

“The study committee is, I believe, an opportunity to have some very public, open and honest conversations about where we see the Universities of Wisconsin headed in the years to come,” said state Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R-Pleasant Prairie, who is chairing the committee. “And to get input from a wide variety of stakeholders as to how they see the university’s role working as a component of our economy in the next 50 to 60 years.”

But after more than a decade of budget battles over the state’s public universities, some are skeptical the debate will happen in good faith.

“I think the study committee may already be a farce before it starts,” said state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, a member of the committee.

Fellow committee member and former UW Board of Regents member Bob Atwell is more optimistic.

“I hope people just don’t write it off as an exercise in political gamesmanship. I don’t think it is. I think it’s a sincere effort — deepen the discussion, hopefully arrive at some ideas,” said Atwell, founding CEO of Nicolet National Bank in Green Bay.

Atwell resigned from the Board of Regents in June. He initially said he would stay past his term, at least for one more board meeting, until his replacement was named. In his new role, Atwell said he will focus on themes that he pushed for as a regent.

“The one conviction I have is we need to change,” he said.

State universities face multiple challenges

Wisconsin’s public universities sit at a crossroads. While enrollment rebounded last fall, the number of students at UW system schools has largely trended downwards in recent years, with the exception of the system’s flagship campus at UW-Madison.

Wisconsin is annually graduating thousands fewer high schoolers than two or three decades ago, giving universities a smaller pool of in-state students for recruitment.

The UW system is also competing with other schools in the state in addition to online degree programs, Atwell said. Meanwhile, some of Wisconsin’s public campuses “are converging” with the technical schools in the state, as they each “look more and more like community colleges,” he said.

Financial worries are also hitting the state’s public universities. Nearly half of the UW system’s 13 universities are projected to have structural deficits in 2024-25. Some universities closed two-year branch campuses in recent years amid plummeting enrollment and budget challenges.

Nedweski said figuring out these types of issues is vital to ensuring a pipeline of qualified workers continues to flow into Wisconsin’s economy. But state lawmakers and university leaders have not always been on the same page.

“The Universities of Wisconsin aren’t always necessarily willing to be open minded about the ideas coming from the Legislature,” she said. “And the Legislature isn’t necessarily always open minded about the ideas coming from the universities.”

Last year, lawmakers cut $32 million in state funding for the UW system, which resulted in a $7 million cut for UW-Madison alone. The university absorbed the cut without layoffs. Republican legislators said the funding was cut over their objections to diversity, equity and inclusion programs on campuses.

The UW system later received some of the $32 million back to target workforce development in four fields, along with funding for a new engineering building and dorm renovations at UW-Madison. In exchange for the funding, the UW Board of Regents agreed to freeze the number of DEI positions on campuses, and UW-Madison agreed to end a program designed to recruit and support people of color for university jobs.

Atwell was a member of the Board of Regents when it approved the deal. He voted in support along with 10 other members. Six regents voted against the deal. Atwell said he hopes the new committee studying the UW system avoids revisiting that particular issue.

“I prefer to not refight the battle of DEI,” he said. “I think that it was an important discussion that was had, and I don’t think anyone was very happy with how it all ended.”

Atwell said the UW system needs to think, though, about how it portrays itself and attracts people across Wisconsin. He voiced concern with a general “public distrust of higher ed.”

“If people aren’t buying what you’re selling, you got to have the guts to look in the mirror and say, ‘What is it they don’t like?'” he said.

Committee follows governor’s call for more state aid

In a statement to the Cap Times, UW system spokesperson Mark Pitsch said the universities “appreciate the interest and involvement” of all of those involved with the legislative study committee.

Pitsch acknowledged the state’s universities are facing a range of challenges. He also said state funding levels have “fallen behind” other states. Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman has previously highlighted a ranking that places Wisconsin near the bottom of the country when comparing funding from state aid and tuition.

State Rep. Alex Joers, D-Middleton, is one of four legislators on the new legislative study committee. He said figuring out a way to grow state support for Wisconsin’s universities would be a top priority.

“I hope to see a lot of the focus and discussion in the study committee talk about what the future funding looks like to make sure that we’re supporting every student that is attending our universities,” Joers said.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has vowed to ask the Legislature during next year’s budget deliberations to give the UW system more than $800 million in state dollars — “the largest biennial budget increase in the UW system’s state history,” according to the governor.

Evers’ proposal faces an uncertain future in the Legislature. The dynamic will be shaped by results of this year’s fall elections, when half of the state’s Senate seats and all of the state Assembly is up for re-election.

Nedweski said funding would be one issue discussed by the new legislative study committee while calling for more transparency from the state’s universities over their budgeting and spending practices. She said universities should be matching what employers and other groups need, particularly when fewer students are graduating.

“We can’t continue to operate and spend at the same levels and work at the status quo when we have less people,” she said. “It’s just a failing business model. So we have to look at how we become more efficient and serve the economy’s needs versus its wants.”

Separate UW-Madison from the UW system?

One idea expected to gain renewed attention from the legislative study committee is spinning off UW-Madison from the rest of the UW system.

The concept was unsuccessfully proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 and predates the creation of the modern UW system. In 1971, the system was formed after merging two competing state university systems.

UW-Madison has long argued for more decision-making powers as one of the few flagship universities in the country lacking freedom on construction projects, among other things. In a recent research paper, a group of UW-Madison economists suggest there is some merit to giving UW-Madison more freedom, noting the university is relatively unique among flagship universities nationally in being tied to 12 other universities.

Nedweski said while the idea would be discussed by the new committee, it wouldn’t be the main priority and the full Legislature would need to weigh in on changing the UW system’s structure.

“That’s not the entire purpose of this committee,” she said. “It’s not the focus of this committee. It’s not driving this committee. It’s not this committee’s agenda.”

UW system officials were largely skeptical of Walker’s proposal in 2011, which was crafted with input from UW-Madison. Opponents of the idea raised concerns that spinning off UW-Madison would undermine the Board of Regents’ ability to govern public higher education and could create more bureaucracy.

Larson said the concept is akin to a “divide and conquer strategy.”

“Trying to cut off other universities and then smother them out — does that sound like a recipe for long-term success for Wisconsin?” he said.

Atwell said he doesn’t know yet which model is best. But in a May email obtained by the Cap Times about the new committee, Atwell told Assembly Speaker Robin Vos “the challenges and opportunities at the 12 regionals are very different from Madison.”

“I see very clearly how Madison masks the fragility of the other 12 campuses,” Atwell wrote. “I especially want reform of the 12 comprehensives and separation from Madison improves the chances for system reform.”

Atwell told the Cap Times, “I think that the kind of conversations we have to have about Madison largely are completely different than what we have to have about the other institutions.”

The committee members

Nedweski will serve as chair of the new legislative study committee while state Sen. Cory Tomczyk, R-Mosinee, will serve as vice chair.

The other 16 members include alums from UW-Madison and other campuses across the state, members of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association Board of Directors, and former UW system regents.

Committee member Ananth Seshadri is an economics professor at UW-Madison who recently published a series of papers with a couple of peers on the economics of UW-Madison. They examined the value of a bachelor’s degree, where the flagship university stands in rankings and the status of state funding, among other issues.

“I’m kind of looking forward to effectively ensuring that we get the best possible evidence and come up with policies that are backed by good data,” Seshadri said.

The other members include:

  • Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce

  • Scott Beightol, partner at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP in Milwaukee and a former UW regent

  • Shauna Froelich, associate teaching professor in UW-Green Bay’s Communication Department

  • William Hsu, president of Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises, Inc., in Wausau

  • Peter Kies, managing director of Robert W. Baird & Co., in Milwaukee

  • Cecelia Klingele, professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison

  • James Langdon, UW system’s former vice president for administration 

  • Jerome Lippert, owner of Johoca Ltd LLC, from Marshfield

  • Betsy Morgan, provost at UW-La Crosse

  • Janice Mueller, former state auditor

  • S. Mark Tyler, Wisconsin Technical College System Board president

  • Robert Venable, president and CEO of Miami Corporation Management, from Mequon

Source: After DEI feud, panel will scrutinize University of Wisconsin’s future | Education |

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