The UW Board of Regents approved a sweeping system reorganization plan Thursday.

Do not forget to put students first as University of Wisconsin two-year schools are merged with four-year campuses, university chancellors and faculty urged Thursday, as the system’s governing board approved the reorganization.

UW College students come to the small two-year campuses dotting the state because “we cultivate and grow talent where we are,” said Holly Hassel, a professor of English at UW-Marathon County in rural central Wisconsin.

UW Colleges offer access, affordability, support, personal attention and community that their students need to launch their college careers, Hassel said. That, her students tell her, is why UW-Marathon County is the right place for them, she said.

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents heard more than an hour of testimony from chancellors, faculty, staff, community leaders and a student before voting to proceed with a reorganization proposal put forward just a month ago by UW System President Ray Cross.

Under the plan, the 13 UW Colleges will become branches of seven of the system's four-year institutions. UW Cooperative Extension will be moved to UW-Madison, while other Extension programs — including public broadcasting, outreach and continuing education — are moving to UW System central administration.

Cross pointed to plummeting enrollment at the Colleges — 32 percent since 2010 — together with static state population projections as evidence that the current system organization is not sustainable.

His proposal drew criticism from many quarters, largely because of a quick July 1 merger date and lack of details about how the changes would be implemented.

Cross said Thursday he understood the anxiety created by his merger proposal. The very discussion was dissuading some students from attending UW Colleges.

“But the more we stretch it out, the worse it gets,” he told Regents. “At any point we can say, ‘We don’t like this,’ but this gets us moving on the process.”

Cross also pledged to involve student, staff, faculty, communities and businesses in working out the many details of the merger. And he acknowledged that questions about some aspects — curriculum, for example — might not be resolved when the schools begin operations under the new structure on July 1.

Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of UW Colleges and Extension, projected photographs of college students on a screen for regents to see.

They are older than traditional college students, first-generation, low-income and of underrepresented race and ethnic groups, Sandeen said. They work more, attend school less and have a greater need for remedial classes than traditional students, she said. They require a high level of learner support.

“I hope this proposal adds more resources to support these students,” Sandeen said. “I hope the mission of serving these students does not change.”

She also urged UW officials to set benchmarks to hold the reorganizing process accountable for producing positive outcomes.

Some chancellors of four-year institutions echoed support for preserving the mission to serve the students of the two-year schools, and said the reorganization proposal offered potential to do much more.

Chancellor James Schmidt of UW-Eau Claire said that focusing on students can provide direction for the multitude of other questions about operations in the restructured system.

“If we stay focused on what is right for students, most of the rest of this takes care of itself,” he said.

The four-year schools also have much to gain from the process, Schmidt said.

“This is not a one-way consolidation. I believe UW-Eau Claire will learn a lot from its experience with UW-Marathon County,” he said.

Reallocation of system funds to UW Colleges to support robust programming is important, said Chancellor Bernie Patterson of UW-Stevens Point.

Just how the complex system of allocating university system funds would be changed has not been determined, Cross said.

Chancellor Gary Miller of UW-Green Bay was optimistic about the possibilities that could emerge from new partnerships of the realigned campuses with local businesses and others.

“We’re not just reorganizing, we’re raising expectations in the state in a real way,” Miller said.

“The real power here is in reshaping the capacity of the system to serve students and support the community by providing a platform to imagine what the future will be,” he said. “That only will happen if the work process laid out is smart about flexibility and we work with one another."

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Some officials in the counties that own, build and maintain facilities on UW Colleges campuses have said they are worried about a loss of local identity, even a change in campus name, said Brad Karger, chief administrator of Marathon County.

“I’m not. I’m worried about keeping the doors open,” Karger said before he testified before the Board of Regents.

The colleges provide access to higher education to populations who would not otherwise be able to go to college, he said.

Karger asked regents to put at the center of implementation planning those people — like ethnic Hmong without a tradition of college, low-income people and others who cannot leave their home communities to attend school.

“We want a planning process we can participate in,” he said. “We want it as decentralized as possible.”

Cross has not included students on the implementation steering committee, but said they would be heard from. The UW System Student Representatives put out a statement Thursday saying they hope “UW Leadership recognizes the importance of student input throughout the implementation process.” They also have asked for a voting position the steering committee.

Regent Tony Evers voted against the reorganization proposal because of the swift, closed process.

“There are people in this state who feel left behind in the process, and whether that is perception or reality doesn’t matter,” he said. Regent Janice Mueller said she could not support the proposal now because it did not detail some fiscal issues she considered vital.

Most Regent comment resembled that of Mike Jones, who remarked that surprises should be expected along the way during mergers.

“There are always surprises along the way. Some are good, some are bad — but there’s no way of knowing ahead of time. Delaying doesn’t buy us anything,” Jones said.

“I’m an advocate of, ‘Let’s get going.’”

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