MADISON, Wis.—President Ray Cross presented the Board of Regents with a proposed blueprint for how the University of Wisconsin System should respond to the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic at a special virtual meeting today.

Cross told Regents the financial impact of the COVID crisis on higher education nationwide will be devastating for some. He said he does not believe UW institutions are at imminent risk, but noted, “their ability to recover, stabilize, and strengthen will depend on some significant actions that I see as critical to the future of the UW System.”

“If we want the UW System to survive on the other side of this pandemic – and to continue to provide the world-class education, research, and outreach that generations have treasured and future generations will enjoy – then we must act now,” Cross said.

He said the UW System must:

Cross pointed out that the UW System has been addressing these key priorities in recent years in an incremental fashion, but now must take more centralized, aggressive action. “We must act as if our very future depends on it – because it does,” Cross said.

Refining the missions of the comprehensive universities includes focusing resources on their distinctive programs, reducing duplicative programs, and increasing collaboration between universities. “Each of our comprehensives cannot continue to be ‘all things to all people’ and be financial sustainable,” Cross said.

The UW System launched UW-Shared Services as part of its recent restructuring process to more effectively consolidate and streamline administrative operational functions such as purchasing, human resources, IT, and basic business services among the comprehensive universities, but that work must now be accelerated, Cross said.

He noted that UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee are not required to participate, given their size, but they have already chosen to “opt in” to a number of services by provided by UW-Shared Services, which should produce additional savings.

Finally, Cross told Regents the UW System must take action to be a more prominent player in delivering online education. He noted the entire UW System captures only about 5 to 8% of the online market share in the upper Midwest. “We must accelerate now – or risk being left behind, perhaps for good,” he said.

The UW System has not tapped this online market, particularly among non-traditional students, the way it could have, Cross said, largely because it does not have a unified approach to online education. Instead, each university within the System develops and offers its own online courses and programs, creating duplication, limited marketing capability, and confusing potential students.

Cross called for improving the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of online offerings as well as designating UW Extended Campus’s collaborative model as the default approach going forward.

“Finding solutions to our toughest problems has always been our way. It’s the Wisconsin way,” Cross said. “If we bring bold ideas and vision to the challenges facing us, the University of Wisconsin System will not only survive, it will thrive.”

Regents hear from Chancellors

Four Chancellors provided Regents with first-hand perspectives from their universities on the impact of COVID-19. They emphasized the enormous financial toll of the pandemic on all operations.

Putting the unprecedented nature of the crisis in perspective, UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank noted that the flagship usually is in good stead because of its multiple revenue streams. Now, all of those streams are taking a hit. “I also worry about our budget next year, and the year after that,” she said.

UW System projections indicate approximately $212.3 million in revenue loss and additional expenses across the System through the summer semester. The net loss after the federal support provided through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, as well as estimated expense reductions and costs savings, is projected at $98.6 million through summer.

The Chancellors also spoke of the rapid, large-scale transition of all instructional programming into an online delivery across the System, and the exceptional efforts of faculty and staff to make that happen and hold students’ educational experience harmless as much as possible. UW-Milwaukee Mark Mone also noted how universities are adapting to new circumstances by providing a virtual student union, online career planning, and tele-health support.

The big question facing all universities is what will happen in the fall. Chancellors expressed serious concerns about likely drops in fall enrollment if classes are not face-to-face, and the devastating financial implications that would present. They also expressed concerns about the increased costs of providing testing, tracking, and other protective measures even if students do fully return to campus.

The fall semester is filled with uncertainties, which makes planning very difficult. “But we’re not giving up,” said UW-Parkside Chancellor Debbie Ford. She told Regents that her university community, like other UW peers, is developing a variety of contingency plans to meet different scenarios.

Chancellors also recognized the impact on students of the changed university experience. “Students miss what they don’t have, the interpersonal interactions,” said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt.

Chancellor Blank told Regents the big short-term goal facing her university, like others around the System, has been to complete the spring semester strong. She noted that in two days, UW-Madison will confer about 9,000 degrees. Across the System, a total of about 20,000 degrees will be awarded at all levels.

Petersen: Regents must offer continuity in time of transition, uncertainty

President Andrew Petersen told Regents they must be prepared to continue to consider and take bold actions to prepare for an uncertain and volatile future.

He acknowledged that some might ask why President Cross should present a blueprint for the UW System’s future when he is retiring and will not be around to implement such plans.

“It is very much to our benefit that we can draw on President Cross’s decades of experience in higher education, his objectivity, as well as his in-depth knowledge of the UW System, its strengths and its challenges, and its vital importance to the state of Wisconsin,” Petersen said.

He added Regents have a solemn responsibility to help ensure, on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, that the UW System remains strong.

“Our support for the priorities presented by President Cross, in whole or in part, is the bridge to the future when his successor, whoever that may be, steps forward to lead the UW System,” Petersen said. “It is vitally important the Board offer this continuity of purpose.”

Update on presidential search

Regent Vice President Michael M. Grebe, chair of the search committee to identify a successor to retiring President Cross, told the Board the process continues to move forward.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to adjust our process, but it hasn’t impeded our progress,” Grebe said.

Grebe said virtual interviews with semi-finalists were completed last month, and the committee will proceed with finalist interviews following reference checks in the coming weeks. It is expected a new president could be named in the next month or so.

In other business, the Board:

  • Offered congratulations to UW System’s graduating Class of 2020;
  • Approved UW-Eau Claire’s request to increase the budget for the Towers Hall Renovation project;
  • Approved UW-Madison’s request for authority to construct the demolition and abatement scope of the Gymnasium/Natatorium replacement project;
  • Approved UW-Whitewater’s request to increase the budget for the Heating Plant Boilers Fuel Retrofit project;
  • Approved UW-Madison’s fee for services agreement with Genentech, Inc., for the UW Fundus Photograph Reading Center to help further develop methods for analyzing both the progress of retinal diseases and the potential treatments for those diseases;
  • Approved UW-Madison’s master clinical services agreement with Sanofi US Services, Inc., for providing statistical data analysis services related to Sanofi clinical studies;
  • Approved UW-Madison’s contractual agreement with Compass Group USA, for vending services on behalf of UW-Madison and its Division of University Housing and the Wisconsin Union;
  • Approved a temporary suspension of the Regent Policy requirement that all freshman applicants provide an ACT or SAT score as part of their application; the suspension of the requirement applies to all freshman applicants to UW System campuses, except UW-Madison, for the 2020-21 and 2021-2022 academic years; and
  • Approved changes to the Board of Regents 2020 meeting schedule.

The next virtual meeting of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents will be June 4-5, 2020.