Wisconsin to cut $300M from higher ed, but increase system autonomy

Chancellors say it will result in layoffs

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) still plans to cut $300 million from the state's higher education budget in the next two years, but announced he will also give the university system much more autonomy.

If approved by the legislature, the plan in Walker's budget proposal would exempt the Board of Regents from certain state rules and processes, awarding them more power over construction and service contracting. Simultaneously, the budget would cut state aid by almost 13%.

Under the plan, the University of Wisconsin (UW) system will be able to determine staff wages, issue bonds, and control more decisions. Walker says those changes will make the system "more effective, more efficient, and ultimately more accountable to the taxpayers of this state."  

The funding cuts will likely result in layoffs but will not shutter campuses, according to top system officials. 

Plan details

This fiscal year, the state granted the UW System $1.18 billion. Walker plans to cut that by 12.7%, or  $150 million, annually for the next two years.

Currently, that money accounts for about 19% of UW's approximately $6 billion budget, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Federal aid, donations, grants, tuition, and other payments make up the rest.

Under the plan, UW's tuition freeze (begun in 2013) would continue for two more years, at which time the Board of Regents could set tuition prices itself—unless the Legislature preemptively passes a bill extending the freeze or limiting rate increases.

It would also transform the system's 26 campuses into a public authority, funded by sales tax revenue in the form of a block grant, which would increase yearly based on inflation. This would also give the system control over wages, tenure, sick leave, and shared governance. 

University reactions

Officials say they welcome the autonomy, but funding cuts would mean significant changes in system operations. Originally, the system asked for an additional $95 million.

System President Ray Cross says the loss in funding will affect each campus differently, and as of now closing certain ones is not being evaluated.

Related: One state's governor, university system locked in ongoing budget standoff

"It's going to be a very significant challenge," he says, adding "it's not something we look forward to."

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank says each of her schools and colleges will face layoffs, while UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone told his employees in a letter Friday it "may be one of the biggest challenges [his school] has faced."

Students also expressed their support for additional financing. "A tuition freeze will only be effective if it's accompanied by an increase in state funding," says UM-Milwaukee student president Ryan Sorenson (Marley/Herzog, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1/27; Bauer, AP/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1/27).

The takeaway: Wisconsin governor proposes plan to cut state funding to higher education by $300,000 million, but increase the system's autonomy.

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