As you know, we have recently hosted five listening sessions across the state to gain a better understanding of the impact of the Governor’s proposed cuts to the System, our campuses and UW-Extension programs. We invited community leaders, parents, local educators and business owners to hear their views on the cuts and to learn how the cuts may impact local regions. We were also interested in the longer-term issues of the university’s structure and mission and how to preserve our ability to serve the state and help grow its economy.

The sessions – in Eau Claire, Green Bay, Stevens Point, Waukesha and Madison – were well attended. In all, we sat down and talked with about 150 people – roughly half were our own students, administrators, faculty and staff; and the other half were alumni, parents, community leaders, K-12 administrators, business owners and local government officials. About 300 more people attended the sessions and had the opportunity to speak. Local media coverage of the sessions is included in your folders. I want to thank the staff who put the listening sessions together on pretty short notice, and all of the regents who took time to attend. I think you agree with me that we learned a great deal. I’d like to share some of the things I heard, and ask other Regents to share their observations.

Overall, the wellspring of public support for the university across the state is impressive. We heard repeatedly how important our campuses are to the quality of life and economies of their local communities and how important people believe higher education is to the long-term financial solutions for the state. We also heard some frustrations that we haven’t been able to convey that message adequately to our legislators. Many urged us strongly to work with the legislature to insure that future cuts and future increases reflect our fair share of state spending.

There were themes that recurred through the five sessions that I’d like to touch on: quality, access, tuition, financial aid, the impact of the cuts, economic development, K-12 education and the UW’s impact on the quality of life.

  • First, Quality. We heard from students, faculty and community partners alike that maintaining the quality of a UW education should be of paramount importance, and we should not compromise on that point, even at the expense of access, because a poor quality education is not worth the price. We also heard some disturbing signs that the quality of education is eroding despite our best efforts – students who can’t get the classes they need, campuses without crucial faculty, supply and expense budgets that are inadequate to the need. We also heard repeatedly that excellence is something that can erode quickly but can take years to rebuild once lost. Students are especially concerned about quality not only in educational services, but also in the value of their degrees.
  • Next, Access. This is also very important to people. It was painful for our UW Colleges, which have always been open access points, to now be turning away students. Many question why we must reduce access at a time when demand on all of our campuses is so great. Access also means access to the services we supply to local businesses and municipalities, and we repeatedly heard how important the services are – whether from a dairy farmer in Belleville or from the Mayor of Wausau.
  • Tuition. There were mixed messages on this issue. Certainly, many students expressed concern about the tuition increases being discussed and spoke about the personal hardships they would incur as a result. But I was surprised at the number of students who said they would rather pay the tuition increases than see quality erode further, and the number of parents who said that UW tuition is a flat-out bargain. Even though students and their parents are painfully aware that these tuition increases are in lieu of diminished state support, they would rather pay them than see cuts to the university go any deeper. Students are also very aware that more severe cuts to the university could impede their ability to graduate in a timely fashion and in the end, could cost them another semester or year of tuition.
  • Financial Aid. There is very strong support for financial aid increases throughout the state. However, parents and students do not feel it is fair that it be taken from student reserves and they urge us to work with the state to find another, more stable funding source. There is special concern for our most disadvantaged students and for those “in the middle,” not wealthy, but who do not qualify for financial aid. We heard many pleas that we be careful not to leave the students behind.
  • On Impact of the Cuts. I was reassured through these sessions that our campuses are doing an excellent job of planning for these cuts and involving their university communities in a very participatory process so that the wisest decisions can be made. They are following President Lyall’s guidance to look first at administrative cuts and eliminating duplication to protect, as far as possible, instruction. But, as we heard from many faculty, these cuts are coming on top of many previous operating budget cuts, including in this fiscal year, from which our campuses have not yet recovered. The UW Colleges, especially, are very thinly staffed with faculty at this point and these cuts have the potential to wipe out whole departments there. We also heard concern about the impact of these cuts on our research and grant-getting capabilities. I am increasingly convinced that we are hitting bone on many of our campuses and we cannot sustain quality long-term without relief. We heard at several sessions that we should avoid across-the-board cuts and make some hard decisions and I think our campuses are doing just that – preserving some academic areas while, reluctantly, cutting others more deeply. We also heard that these cuts are all the more difficult because the economy is depressing private fund raising and our endowment levels.
  • Economic Development. Many participants cited the economic impact of the university and its importance to regional and state growth. This stems from their personal experience as mayors, county board members, business owners and local economic development directors. People feel it is very important that we preserve our ability to drive economic recovery through UW graduates in the workforce, our research spin-offs and our assistance to business owners and entrepreneurs. Many question state cutbacks in an area of state spending that provides such tangible returns on investment.
  • K-12 Education. I was struck with the close partnerships between our campuses and their local school districts. We heard pleas to be sensitive to the needs of our partners in K-12 schools who are undergoing their own budget challenges. The importance of our graduates who are desperately needed as teachers in some areas of the state cannot be overstated. This holds true in other areas of the workforce as well, such as health care.
  • Quality of Life. On a personal level, we heard from participants how important the university has been to their lives. Though we often talk about the economic impact of our campuses and UW-Extension on their communities, we were reminded of the more intangible benefits as well – from dance recitals in Stevens Point to students volunteering for public service in Milwaukee. In many cases, our institutions have lifted the quality of life for generations within families.

I’ve just touched on a few highlights here. We received many specific suggestions from participants – some related to handling the immediate cuts and others urging us to take a long-term view of what the UW System should look like in 2005 and beyond.

It was suggested that the university could and should use its intellectual capital to help redesign the state’s fiscal base to help boost revenues as the economy makes the transition from its dependency on manufacturing to a more service-based economy.

It was suggested that we have not done a very good job at getting our message out to public and, more specifically, questioned what we have done, or not done, as an institution to cause the Governor and legislature to apply such disproportionate cuts to higher education.

Some speakers urged us to fight the Governor’s cuts more vigorously, and we learned that many students, faculty and staff are talking with and writing to legislators to urge them to help the university. The “fairness” issue was a strong theme and many speakers pointed to the seeming injustice in asking the university, which is 9% of the state budget, to take 38% of the cuts.

Overall, as I said earlier, I think the Regents in attendance gained a much more detailed understanding of what these cuts will mean to our campuses. It is also clear that if these cuts should grow or if tuition should increase even more, the effects on our campuses and on our students will be devastating. And if that occurs, enrollments will inevitably be affected for the long term.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate the broad and heartfelt support for the UW System. People truly understand the importance not only of their own local campus or their alma mater, but also of the entire UW System and its role in the quality of our state. Several referred to it as the “jewel in the state’s crown.”

The spirit of the Wisconsin Idea is alive and well and ordinary people who care about Wisconsin are depending on us to be here when the dust settles to work on a rebuilding process.

I believe that the current budget forums – both ours and the hearings being conducted by the Joint Finance Committee – are opening minds to “out-of-the-box” solutions. We heard suggestions to privatize parts of the system, to explore new collaborations and partnerships, to play to our strengths and cut areas of weakness, to consider income-related tuition, to restructure our GPR appropriation, and others.

At this point, we need to put all these ideas and more on the table. My overriding impression from this experience is that the university is at a crossroads. Business-as-usual will not suffice any longer. In coming months, we as regents must “sift and winnow” these suggestions and solicit others. We must work with the President, the Chancellors, state leaders and our constituents to chart the best course possible for the university’s future. A lot of people are depending on us. We are obliged to carry on our predecessor’s traditions of access, excellence and affordability in this era. At the same time, we must preserve the university as a critical engine driving the state’s economic vitality.

Now, I’d like to invite my Regent colleagues who attended the sessions to add their thoughts and perspectivesÂ….