A UW System crisis a decade in the making

Nicholas Fleisher and Donald Moynihan:

The blueprint presents an administrative downsizing wishlist dressed up as a set of existential imperatives. First and most prominently, Cross asserts that the UW System “must refine the missions of its comprehensive universities to provide greater institutional distinctiveness and identity.” The comprehensive universities are the four-year regional UW campuses: 11 in all, comprising everything but UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee. Cross’s plan is to force these campuses to compete against each other for the right to house various programs. “Greater institutional distinctiveness and identity” will be achieved via subtraction: will your campus be the one without sociology or the one without history?

For the unfortunate student in Superior or Whitewater or Stevens Point who will have to look beyond their local campus for courses, Cross’s blueprint proposes a “unified strategic online education delivery model.” Cross laments the UW System’s failure to capture a healthy share of the online education market (an area he has personally presided over for years, first as chancellor of the UW Colleges and Extension and, since 2014, as System President). In its details, however, the proposal looks like an attempt by UW System to win online market share from its own campuses, as it tried to do when merging the UW Colleges into the four-year campuses a few years ago.

The blueprint is also not terribly new. Cross’s emphasis on reducing duplication of programs across the system and shunting the affected students online echoes, almost word-for-word, the wishes of Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Regent Michael Grebe. Republican leaders in Wisconsin, including many UW System Regents, have long expressed a desire to downsize the system. Having stripped tenure protections out of state law and enabled the firing of faculty via program modification in 2015, they are treating the pandemic as an opportunity to use their new tools.