Institutions across the University of Wisconsin System have laid off employees, consolidated administration, reduced advising services and cut course offerings over the past year, according to documents released Monday summarizing the impact of state cuts to higher education funding.
The summaries were prepared by each of UW’s universities, as well as its two-year colleges and Extension program, as part of a scrapped plan for chancellors to discuss the cuts at last week’s Board of Regents meeting.
The Wisconsin State Journal last week first reported on the decision by System President Ray Cross and Regent leaders to abort the public presentation to the Regents by chancellors.
Late Monday, the System provided the State Journal with documents that chancellors had prepared for the presentation; the documents were also sent from Regents president Regina Millner to Democrats in the Legislature who had criticized the decision.
The documents detail the many ways the System’s institutions have dealt with their shares of a $250 million cut from UW’s funding in the 2015-17 state budget, which also came in the middle of a four-year tuition freeze.
Some of the summaries are more specific than others, but many describe a similar mix of service reductions and job cuts, accomplished by closing vacant positions, buying out employees, not renewing contracts or laying off workers.
UW-Eau Claire, for instance, cut 15 percent of its workforce to manage a $7.7 million reduction in state funding — a loss that was compounded by declines in enrollment that cost the university an additional $1.5 million.
Most of the job losses came from buyouts, resignations, retirements and layoffs.
More than half of UW’s four-year universities said they have cut courses or increased class sizes this academic year because of the budget shortfall.
Five universities also mentioned cuts to student advising services.
In Green Bay, La Crosse and River Falls, cuts to the budgets for libraries mean students have reduced access to academic journals and course materials.
Officials in several of the summaries said they are concerned the cuts will hurt student retention efforts or lengthen the time it takes students to get a degree.
The UW System’s Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh and Parkside campuses have been unable to grow their programs in high-demand fields such as engineering, business and nursing, according to the documents.
At UW-Stevens Point, which lost $6.5 million in state funding, officials cut seven life science sections, which they say has caused “bottlenecks” for pre-med students who need to take those courses.
Democratic legislators and others have criticized UW officials for not making time at the Regents’ meeting for chancellors to talk about the impact the cuts are having at their institutions, saying the public should know more about how state budget decisions are playing out.
During the Regents’ meeting Thursday at UW-Green Bay, Millner said the effects of the budget cuts are complex and unique to each campus.
Millner said UW officials have encouraged chancellors to talk with residents, legislators and business groups more locally, rather than having them line up to give presentations in front of the Board of Regents.
“We need to be accountable to the public, and that means meeting people where they are,” Millner said.
“The chancellors of the institutions need and deserve more than five minutes apiece to highlight their budget decisions and the resulting changes on their campuses.”
Republicans in the state Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker have defended the cuts to higher education funding, saying they represent a relatively small percentage of the institutions’ overall budgets.
They have also questioned campus spending to retain top faculty members and money some institutions hold in reserve; several universities noted in their summaries that they have spent their reserves down to little or nothing.
Cross said concern over the System’s next budget, which lawmakers will soon consider, was one reason he took the presentations off the Regents’ agenda.
Cross also said he did not want the presentations to turn into a repetitive, “two-hour drumbeat” detailing the cuts’ impacts.