Wisconsin Still Working Out Details of Its Ambitious Merger Plan!

Dear Commons Community,

Officials at the University of Wisconsin System announced earlier this week a proposed restructuring that would merge all of the state’s public two- and four-year campuses.  The details of Wisconsin’s plan will be closely watched by higher education policy makers throughout the country.  As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The list of pressures facing public higher education in Wisconsin would be familiar to policy makers in many states: an aging population, declining enrollment, scarce public dollars, and growing demands from employers and lawmakers to meet work-force needs.

The solution that the University of Wisconsin system is considering is, however, ambitious. The changes are meant to combat the broad demographic challenges that are affecting higher education across the Midwest and northeastern United States. While mergers are being planned or carried out in several other states, the proposal in Wisconsin is, on its face, one of the most sweeping.

In particular, the proposal seeks to reverse the declining enrollment at the two-year colleges and enhance the system’s relevance in a state with an aging population and a migration of residents from rural to urban areas, said the president of the system, Raymond W. Cross.

“From a political perspective, one of the things we want to do is maintain a university community in areas of the state that are shrinking,” Mr. Cross said during an interview with The Chronicle.

The system is also responding to the realities of a state where lawmakers have made steep cuts to higher-education budgets in recent years while demanding better outcomes, said Thomas L. Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

But planning and arranging all of the details of the proposed mergers will present a challenge in Wisconsin, given an already strained relationship between the system leadership and university faculty. Last year, faculty at the flagship campus in Madison voted no confidence in Mr. Cross and the system’s Board of Regents, following changes to the policy on tenure.

Anja Wanner, chair of the University Committee and a professor of English at Madison, said the system will have to do a much better job of informing and engaging faculty and staff members to carry out the proposal.

“We are very much aware of the demographic developments that have led to the restructuring plan, of course,” Ms. Wanner said in an email, “but, as far as I can tell, nobody was informed of the plan itself until it was a done deal, which I find troubling.”

The development at Wisconsin is likely to be among the number one stories for many higher education policy makers for the next several years.  They will see Wisconsin as a blueprint for changing and streamlining public higher education.



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