RIVER FALLS, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents today urged state legislators to pass a budget that covers the university’s ongoing operating expenses. The Regents hope to avoid drastic cost-cutting measures in the Spring 2008 semester that may come if UW campuses don’t receive state funding soon.
Regent President Mark Bradley opened the discussion by citing broad grassroots support for the university from business leaders, students, faculty members, newspaper editors, and elected officials. He emphasized that Republicans and Democrats alike have encouraged legislative leaders to fund the UW System’s “Growth Agenda for Wisconsin.”
“It’s easy to be impressed by the number of people who have written letters in support of our budget, but it’s also impressive to look at the broad base of that support and the consistency of the message,” said Bradley.
UW System President Kevin Reilly explained how the UW System will be challenged to launch the Growth Agenda, which would expand enrollments and boost scientific research, if the state does not fund the university’s core educational programs and student services.
In a unanimous resolution, the Regents acknowledged that UW System campuses do not have funds needed to cover current operating costs, because the absence of a state budget leaves revenue frozen at last year’s levels.
“Inaction is a choice, and by not acting there are very serious and dire consequences. To suggest, by not acting, that nothing is happening is pretty inexcusable,” added Regent Chuck Pruitt.
“I don’t think one politician on either side of the aisle ever got a vote to go to Madison to not do their job, and that’s what they have done here. We have people not doing their job,” said Regent Michael Falbo, who also observed that the lack of action on the state budget stands in stark contrast to private donors who have already made firm commitments to fund major building projects and new academic programs.
“Shame, shame, shame on those who would ignore the letters, the editorials, and the pleas from students – the neighbors they are ignoring in terms of these consequences,” said Regent Danae Davis.
The Regents discussed how the shortfall will force university leaders to choose from among a set of “unacceptable choices,” including a reduction of at least 10 percent in the number of class sections next semester. Other contingency plans call for reducing the operating hours of libraries and academic facilities, cutting the number of academic advisors and financial aid counselors, and paring back on technology support for students and professors.
Regent Colleene Thomas, a UW-Madison student, and Regent Tom Shields, a UW-Oshkosh student, said that fellow students would suffer under these scenarios. Shields said he is concerned about his own ability to graduate on time next year if the budget challenges are not resolved and his required classes are not available.
UW-River Falls Chancellor Don Betz, speaking on behalf of the host campus for this Board meeting, emphasized the impact on campus morale and climate, as this budget impasse comes on the heels of successive cuts to UW System’s state support.
“This is really demoralizing. It’s demoralizing to individuals who work at this institution, and it hurts our national reputation. It seems as if Wisconsin is establishing a pattern of operation that will place us at serious risk, and not just for the short term. I’m afraid that we’re putting our children’s future at risk,” said Betz.
In a discussion about contingency plans, the Regents discussed the very unpopular option of adding a tuition surcharge on top of the 5.5 percent tuition increase already approved for the academic year. Regents Eileen Connolly-Keesler and Peggy Rosenzweig argued that such a surcharge would amount to a “tax” on 160,000 UW students. Regent Jesus Salas emphasized that this would place an additional burden on students from low- and middle-income families.
Chancellor Bruce Shepard from UW-Green Bay explained that the majority of his campus’ financial obligations are related to personnel, noting that the university cannot take back pay increases approved by the legislature last year. Without a new budget, the UW System lacks the revenue to cover those legislatively-approved salaries.
“I can tell you that there will be anger in our community if our students cannot get the classes they need to graduate on time next semester,” said Shepard.
UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Rick Wells explained how the lack of a 2007-09 state capital budget creates multiple problems. In addition to cutting off the flow of maintenance funds for 60 million square feet of UW facilities statewide, it creates a backlog of construction and maintenance projects. As those academic and student projects are postponed, the final costs will grow and potential donors may be discouraged.
Responding to concerns about increased taxes, Reilly explained that the UW System’s “Growth Agenda” will result in higher incomes and a broader tax base for Wisconsin.
“Nobody wants to raise taxes, but unless we reinvest in the university, we will have no choice going forward to either raise taxes or very seriously diminish the services the state provides to our citizens,” said Reilly. “If we create more college graduates and knowledge-economy jobs to employ them, we’ll raise per-capita income and grow the state’s tax base and increase tax revenues without increasing the individual tax burden.”
The Regents asked UW System staff to immediately disseminate the approved resolution, in hopes that their expression of concern might influence legislative action in Madison.