Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

The Board of Regents Thursday signed off on UW System President Ray Cross’ plan to merge two-year colleges with four-year campuses.

The plan, which would fold the 13 two-year UW Colleges into seven nearby four-year institutions, passed over calls from a couple of regents to slow down, including guv candidate Tony Evers, who sits on the board as state schools superintendent.

Still, Cross and others urged the board to give the go-ahead and “get us moving on the process,” adding that the state’s demographic challenges aren’t going away.

UW Colleges have seen enrollment drops in recent years and face an uncertain future as the state’s youth population largely stays flat.

Speaking before the regents vote, Evers suggested continuing discussions and involving more stakeholders.

“People in the state of Wisconsin feel they’ve been left behind in this process,” he said. “Whether that’s reality or perception doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.”

Meanwhile, Regents Janice Mueller and Lisa Erickson voiced support for delaying the vote for a few weeks — until the upcoming meeting next month.

Mueller, a former state auditor, said the time was necessary to put together a financial baseline, adding she didn’t know whether the board was “fulfilling our fiduciary responsibility” given the unknowns associated with the plan.

“We need to be bold, but we also need to be deliberative,” she said.

But other regents stressed the need to move quickly.

Regent Regina Millner called it “critically important” to make the decision at Thursday’s meeting, saying a three-week delay would simply extend the process.

“We need to put this baby to bed,” she said.

Cross, meanwhile, stressed that any further delays — even of just a few weeks — would increase the anxiety over the plan’s unknowns for employees and students.

“We will have enrollment drops at these two year colleges because of just what we’re doing. How do we shorten that?” Cross asked. “The more we stretch it out, the worse it gets.”

Meanwhile, chancellors stressed filling in the details going forward would require deep collaboration with stakeholders.

While they supported the move overall, they also noted the importance of focusing on the needs of the students as further decisions are made.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmid, who joined nearly eight other chancellors in addressing the board before the regents’ vote, noted “thousands of policy decisions …have yet to be made,” adding if the spotlight stays on “what’s right for students, most of the rest of this takes care of itself.”

And UW Colleges and Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen highlighted the “high level” of support some UW College students need, saying the student profile of those who attend the two-year institutions aren’t the same as their four-year counterparts.

For example, she said, 81 percent are working full- or part-time, 58 percent are first generation college students, 35 percent are low-income, 18 percent have dependents — children or older adults they’re taking care of.

“What this means is these are Wisconsinites with a dream of a University of Wisconsin degree,” she said, adding she hopes the merger would result in more resources to support students who need it.

Schmidt, of UW-Eau Claire, said his university’s joining with UW-Barron County, as outlined in the plan, would be an opportunity to bring additional coursework to the two-year institution, although he said the merger wouldn’t be a “one way consolidation.”

“It is not my intention to make a small UW-Eau Claire in Barron County,” he said.

UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt, meanwhile, urged his colleagues to consider the loss of control and identity the UW Colleges could be feeling under the plan.

UW-Oshkosh would be joined with UW-Fond Du Lac and UW-Fox Valley, per the framework.

“We have to be sensitive to this as we bring these new universities together, and we have to listen,” Leavitt said, adding the plan needs both flexibility and to be “properly resourced” to be successful.

UW Madison Chancellor Blank said she was excited to incorporate UW-Extension Cooperative Extension Division and conference centers into the university.

If done right, she said, both Cooperative Extension and UW-Madison would become stronger by leveraging resources and integrating their work where it aligned.

Cross, speaking with reporters after the vote, said the UW Colleges wouldn’t necessarily have to adopt the name of the four-year institution they’re joining,

There was “no intent to create a specific type of identity,” he said.

Instead, he added, that decision would be made locally with stakeholders.

“This is their community, and we are partners with them so they will have a huge voice,” he said.

On whether the two-year degrees will carry the names of the four-year schools they’re partnered with, Cross said it depends on how the accreditation process works

“The timing may be phased in over time; we just don’t know yet,” he said.

Cross also said his merger proposal hadn’t been spurred by any lawmaker input, saying he “did everything I could to keep this from being political.”

“From my perspective, it’s a rational move,” he said, in response to demographic and financial data, as well as other challenges the UW Colleges are facing.

Going forward, the merger proposal will be a standing agenda item, meaning it’ll be discussed at the next six regents meetings, per a directive from Regent President John Behling before the vote.

Cross is also looking to form a 22-person steering committee to oversee the project, though it won’t have any student members. It would include officials from: UW System administration, UW Colleges and UW-Extension and each of the other UW institutions being joined with a two-year campus.

Students, faculty and staff will be part of a separate shared governance group that’s set to consult with the steering committee

But Cross downplayed the lack of student voting members on the steering committee, calling it “a recommending group anyway.”

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