The University of Wisconsin System is one of the largest systems of public higher education in the country, serving approximately 180,000 students each year and employing more than 39,000 faculty and staff statewide.
The UW System is made up of 13 four-year universities, 13 freshman-sophomore UW Colleges campuses, and statewide UW-Extension. Together, these institutions are a tremendous academic, cultural, and economic resource for Wisconsin, the nation, and the world.
UW System at a Glance
Enrollment: Approximately 180,000
Institutions: 13 four-year universities, 13 freshman-sophomore UW Colleges campuses, Statewide UW-Extension
Annual Budget: $6 billion
State Funding: $1.2 billion
Gifts, Grants and Contracts: $1.5 billion
Economic Impact: $15+ billion annually
Degrees awarded: More than 36,000
Learn more about the system by reviewing UW System publications.
Merger of Two Systems of Higher Education
The University of Wisconsin System was created on October 11, 1971, by Chapter 100, Laws of 1971, which combined the two public university systems of the state under a single board of regents. The 1971 legislature set July 1, 1973, as the final date for completion of the merger, but the 1973 Assembly Bill 930, drafted with the help of a Merger Implementation Study Committee to achieve that objective, did not pass in the assembly until the spring session of 1974 and died for lack of senate action when the regular session ended. The bill passed both houses, as Senate Bill 2, in the special session in May 1974 and became law on July 9, 1974. The bill combined the former Chapter 36 (former University of Wisconsin) and Chapter 37 (former Wisconsin State Universities) to create a new Chapter 36 (University of Wisconsin System) of the Wisconsin Statutes.
Former University of Wisconsin
The pre-merger University of Wisconsin was created by the state constitution and state law in 1848. At the time of merger in 1971, it consisted of the original land-grant university at Madison (1849); the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (merged in 1956); UW-Green Bay (1968) and UW-Parkside (1968) plus 10 freshman-sophomore centers (now colleges) and statewide Extension. Total 1971 enrollment was 69,554. Governance was by The Regents of the University of Wisconsin, a board of 10 members, nine appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate for nine-year terms, the tenth being the state superintendent of public instruction who served ex-officio on both the UW and WSU boards.
Former Wisconsin State Universities
The Wisconsin State Universities system had its origins in an 1857 state law creating the Board of Regents of Normal Schools. The first of nine such institutions was opened at Platteville in 1866 and the last at Eau Claire in 1916. In 1927, the normal schools received authority to grant baccalaureate degrees in education and were renamed State Teachers Colleges. With the addition of liberal arts programs in 1951, they became Wisconsin State Colleges. (As a side note, UW-Stout was founded as a private institution in 1893. It was governed by a separate Board of Trustees from 1911, when it became a state institution, until 1955 when it was designated part of the Wisconsin State Colleges System.) In 1964, the Wisconsin State Colleges were designated Wisconsin State Universities. At the time of merger in 1971, the board had 14 members, including the state superintendent of public instruction and 13 citizens appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate for five-year terms. The WSU system, then governed by the board, consisted of the nine universities and four freshman-sophomore branch campuses (now colleges) and had a total enrollment of 64,148.
The University of Wisconsin System
The 1971 merger law was approved after long debate by a margin of one vote in the senate. It combined the two systems under a single Board of Regents, creating a system with 13 universities, 14 (now 13) freshman-sophomore centers (now colleges), and statewide extension with offices in all 72 counties. The freshman-sophomore center at Medford was closed in 1981 by state law. Each university is named “University of Wisconsin-” followed by the location or name. Each two-year college is named “University of Wisconsin-” followed by the city and/or county in which it is located.
Mission of the University of Wisconsin System
The mission of the University of Wisconsin System is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses, and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training, and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the UW System is the search for truth.
Mission of the University of Wisconsin System Administration
With the Board of Regents, the UW System Administration leads and serves the UW System institutions, as a champion of higher education and a responsible steward of resources.
Under the direction of the UW System President, the UW System Administration helps to develop, and then implements, monitors, and evaluates policies enacted by the Board of Regents, aligning university programs with the current and future needs of the state and the nation.
In fulfilling this mission, the UW System Administration:
- Develops strategic plans, analyzing advances in teaching and learning, new technologies, and demographic trends.
- Acquires and manages the human, physical, and financial resources needed to advance public higher education in Wisconsin, advocating for UW System institutions, students, employees, and stakeholders.
- Ensures the effective and efficient use of resources, building trust with students, taxpayers, donors, and other funders.
- Measures, evaluates, and reports the UW System’s progress toward strategic goals and operational objectives, demonstrating accountability and leadership.
- Cultivates the talent needed to fulfill the UW System mission, helping the institutions attract, reward, and retain faculty, academic staff, classified staff, and academic leaders,
- Models and leads organizational learning and transformation through inclusive excellence, equity, and diversity, by engaging with students, faculty, staff, and a wide variety of external stakeholders, whose diverse viewpoints and experiences enrich the university’s impact.
- Facilitates close coordination and cooperation among the UW System institutions, building on existing capabilities and sharing expertise.
- Coordinates UW System activities and operations with appropriate local, state, and federal governmental agencies.
- Facilitates effective partnerships with other public and private educational institutions and systems, university governance groups, businesses, students, and others, to create shared solutions to emerging challenges.
- Interprets and applies laws, regulations, and business practices that govern the UW System, providing reliable guidance and oversight for the institutions.
Organization & Roles
The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System consists of 18 members, 16 of whom are appointed by the Governor subject to confirmation by the Senate. Of these 16 members, 14 serve staggered, seven-year terms. In addition, two current UW System students are appointed to the board for two-year terms. One of the two students is a non-traditional student. The two ex-officio members are the state superintendent of public instruction and the president or a designee of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board.
The board is responsible for establishing policies and rules for governing the system, planning to meet future state needs for collegiate education, setting admission standards and policies, reviewing and approving university budgets and establishing the regulatory framework within which the individual units are allowed to operate with as great a degree of autonomy as possible. The board is empowered to appoint the president of the university system; the chancellors of the 13 universities, UW-Extension and the UW Colleges; and the deans who head each of the 13 colleges. All serve at the pleasure of the board. The board grants tenure appointments to faculty members.
The regents meet monthly and serve without pay. The board president, vice president and a full-time secretary are elected in June for one-year terms. The president of the board appoints members of the regents’ education, business, finance and audit, physical planning and funding, and personnel matters review committees; student discipline and student governance appeals committees; special committees and external bodies. The regent executive committee consists of the president, vice president, chairs of three standing committees, immediate past president and one other member appointed by the president.
The president and chancellors of the University of Wisconsin System are charged with implementing regent policies and with administration of the institutions. The system administration, located in Madison, is responsible to the president of the system and assists the Board of Regents in establishing policies, reviewing the administration of such policies and planning the programmatic, financial and physical development of the system.
As executive heads of their respective faculties and institutions, the chancellors are responsible for the administration of their units, including curriculum design; degree requirements; academic standards; grading systems; faculty appointments, evaluation, promotion and recommendations for tenure; and auxiliary services and budget management.
Role of the Faculty in the UW System
The merger law specifically provides that the faculty of each institution, “subject to the responsibilities and powers of the board, the president and the chancellor of such institution, shall be vested with responsibility for the immediate governance of such institution and shall actively participate in institutional policy development. As such, the faculty shall have the primary responsibility for academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters. The faculty of each institution shall have the right to determine their own faculty organizational structure and to select representatives to participate in institutional governance.”
Role of Academic Staff in the UW System
Statutory provision for academic staff participation in governance was added in Act 29 of the Laws of 1985: “The academic staff members of each institution, subject to the responsibilities and powers of the board, the president and the chancellor and faculty of the institution, shall be active participants in the immediate governance of and policy development for the institution. . . . [They] have primary responsibility for the formulation and review, and shall be represented in the development, of all policies and procedures concerning academic staff members, including academic staff personnel matters. The academic staff members of each institution shall have the right to organize themselves in a manner they determine and to select their representatives to participate in institutional governance.”
Role of Classified Staff in the UW System
On September 6, 2013, the Board of Regents adopted Regent Policy Document 20-20, under which classified staff may participate in institutional governance. The Board stated that the purpose of the policy is as follows: “This policy enables active participation in the immediate decision-making and policy development of the institution. Active participation in governance for classified staff under this policy is not collective bargaining and will not result in a labor agreement or contract. Classified staff may make recommendations, consider proposals, and raise concerns to institutional leadership.” The Board policy also provides that classified staff shall have the right to structure themselves in a manner that they determine, and to select their representatives to participate in institutional governance.
Role of Students in the UW System
The merger law provides that the students of each institution or campus “subject to the responsibilities and powers of the board, the president, the chancellor and the faculty shall be active participants in the immediate governance of the policy development for such institutions. As such, students shall have primary responsibility for the formulation and review of policies concerning student life, services and interest. Students in consultation with the chancellor and subject to the final confirmation of the board shall have the responsibility for the disposition of those student fees which constitute substantial support for campus student activities. The students of each institution or campus shall have the right to organize themselves in a manner they determine and to select their representatives to participate in institutional governance.”
Coordination with the Wisconsin Technical College System Board
Coordination of university and vocational-technical education programs is provided for by statute, making the president or his/her designee of each governing board an ex-officio member of the other board. In addition, the two boards have established a joint administrative committee to discuss collaboration and coordination in developing academic programs and in utilizing physical facilities.
This committee, the Joint Administrative Committee on Academic Programs (JACAP), is also charged with clarifying and communicating transfer policies and options between the two systems. One major effort has been the development of the Transfer Information System (TIS). TIS is a computerized course equivalency and degree requirement matrix designed to provide students and staff with accurate, current and accessible information to assist students with decisions that will enable them to transfer into and between the UW System institutions and complete their degree programs without unnecessary delay.
City and County Relationships with the UW Colleges
The counties and/or cities in which the UW Colleges are situated own and maintain the campuses, buildings and facilities. Educational programs, equipment and services are provided by the UW System. The colleges are important not only to the educational life of the communities they serve, but to their recreational and cultural life, as well.
Presidents of the UW System
John C. Weaver 1971–77
H. Edwin Young 1977–80
Robert M. O’Neil 1980–85
Katharine C. Lyall (acting) 1985–86
Kenneth A. Shaw 1986–1991
Katharine C. Lyall (acting) 1991–92
Katharine C. Lyall 1992–2004
Kevin P. Reilly 2004–2013
Richard J. Telfer (acting) January 2014-February 2014
Raymond W. Cross 2014-present
Presidents of the Board of Regents
W. Roy Kopp 1971–73
Frank J. Pelisek 1973–75
Bertram N. McNamara 1975–77
Edward E. Hales 1977–79
Herbert J. Grover 1979–80
Joyce M. Erdman 1980–82
David E. Beckwith 1982–84
Ben R. Lawton 1984–86
Laurence A. Weinstein 1986–88
Paul R. Schilling 1988–90
Thomas L. Lyon 1990–1992
George K. Steil, Sr. 1992–1994
Michael W. Grebe 1994–1996
Sheldon B. Lubar 1996–1998
San W. Orr, Jr. 1998–2000
Jay L. Smith 2000–2002
Guy A. Gottschalk 2002–2003
Toby E. Marcovich 2003–2005
David G. Walsh 2005–2007
Mark J. Bradley 2007-2009
Charles Pruitt 2009-2011
Michael J. Spector 2011-2012
Brent Smith 2012-2013
Michael J. Falbo 2013-present