MADISON — The University of Wisconsin System will be forced to cut next fall’s enrollment by thousands of students if legislators do not roll back the latest round of cuts proposed by the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, Jay L. Smith, president of the UW Board of Regents warned Thursday.

In an unusually pessimistic message to the board, Smith said the UW simply could not absorb cuts beyond Gov. Scott McCallum’s proposed $51 million budget reductions without drastically harming educational quality or student access. Earlier this week the legislative finance panel voted to cap the UW’s tuition increase to 8 percent (a potential $9 million revenue loss) and to cut state agency budgets overall by $23 million, some portion of which would be absorbed by the UW.

If the tuition cap and further cuts are sustained in the final state budget, “the only recourse is to shut our doors to many deserving students,” Smith said. “Otherwise, we may permanently jeopardize the quality education of which our citizens are so proud.”

Smith directed UW System President Katharine Lyall to report to the board next week on the status and impact of pending budget cuts. Smith said he may have to ask the Board of Regents to direct each UW campus to immediately begin sending “conditional letters of admission to all (qualified) applicants not yet accepted,” adding that “this would be an unprecedented measure, and one that we would prefer not to take.”

Smith asked the regents’ legislative coordination team, led by Regent Fred Mohs, to “carry our message very clearly to friends in the Legislature.” The UW will also send a letter to every legislator, describing the potential seriousness of the budget cuts, he said.

The latest budget cuts, on top of McCallum’s proposed $51 million decrease, follow a decade in which the UW has sustained $55 million in base budget cuts, Smith said. Through it all, the UW has expanded rather than cutting enrollments, enhancing educational access to Wisconsin students. To preserve the UW’s mission, “we have cut to the bone and beyond,” Smith asserted. Our university leaders “are talented managers, but they are not magicians,” he said.

In the ensuing board discussion, board members strongly supported Smith’s comments, noting that the UW’s role as an engine of economic development for Wisconsin is in serious jeopardy. The UW “has been a catalyst for economic development,” observed Regent Roger Axtell. These latest budget cuts threaten to eliminate the UW’s ability to educate additional students in areas of greatest economic importance to Wisconsin. “I find this extremely distressing,” he said.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Don Mash noted that the proposed tuition cap reduces educational opportunity but does not contribute to improving the state’s overall budget problem, because it generates no additional tax dollars to close the deficit. While keeping tuition low is generally believed to help protect student access, in this case it will have the opposite effect because the UW will be forced to reduce the number of students it can serve, he said.

“The governor’s (proposed) cuts are not going to be easy to manage,” UW System President Lyall told the board. But she termed the potential for additional cuts “devastating.”

The complete text of President Smith’s remarks is online at

Media Contact

Erik Christianson UW System 608-262-5061