The University of Wisconsin System would merge the UW Colleges into the system’s four-year schools as part of a restructuring plan proposed by UW System president Ray Cross.
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The integration of the 13 two-year colleges would take place July 1, 2018 with each becoming a branch of a four-year school. UW-Washington County and UW-Waukesha would become part of UW-Milwaukee while UW-Whitewater would add UW-Rock County.
Portions of the UW Extension would merge into either UW-Madison or the UW System.
The UW Board of Regents will take up the proposal in November and potentially allow the system to move forward with implementation planning.
The proposal comes in response to declining enrollment at the UW Colleges and projected continued declines in the state’s college-age population. Enrollment at the UW Colleges has declined by 32 percent since 2010 and some institutions – UW-Manitowoc and UW-Marathon County – have seen a more than 50 percent drop.
At the same time, nearly 95 percent of the state’s population growth by 2040 is expected to come from those 65 and older. The state’s working age population is expected to grow by 0.4 percent, according to UWM projections.
Cross said the change would allow the system to take advantage of the strength of four-year schools while expanding access for students and supporting faculty.
“Change often produces uncertainty, but we cannot be afraid to pursue needed reforms. We must restructure these two organizations given the state’s demographic challenges, budgetary constraints, and the need for closer alignment between research and practice,” Cross said.
The UW System announcement says the proposal would allow students at the branch campuses to offer more general education and upper-level courses while maintaining current tuition for post-merger general educational courses.
It would also reduce barriers to transferring credits within the UW System and standardize administrative operations to improve efficiency.
Mark Mone, UWM chancellor, said in an email to UWM faculty, staff and students that he was still working with Cross and UW Colleges and Extension chancellor Cathy Sandeen on the details of the transition.
"There are still many questions to be answered in terms of what this will mean and how we move ahead, and we will communicate updates as they occur," Mone wrote.
In an interview, Mone said the merger has great potential, but there's also guarded optimism about what it could mean for the university.
"We really do think this is going to be a closer connection for us," he said. "We already draw a lot of students from those campuses, but this streamlines things."
Mone said there would still be an opportunity for students to earn a two-year degree, but for some programs, especially those in the natural sciences, engineering or nursing, it might make sense to get students into UWM's programs sooner.
As for the actual administration of the Waukesha and Washington County campuses, Mone said it remains to be seen what kind of efficiency can be realized. Specific planning will have to wait for board approval of the proposal, but Mone said the UW Colleges already have "strong and effective administration."
"That's something that we'll have to look at," he said, noting it will require examination of where each organization has strengths and weaknesses. "You've got to look at positions line-by-line carefully."
One possibility Mone pointed to is the potential for faculty at the two-year campuses to more easily fill openings when UWM faculty leave the school or to reconfigure courses to take advantage of faculty at the various campuses.
He also pointed out there are already cases where UWM and the two-year campuses are already working together.
"There's a lot of things I think we can build on," Mone said.