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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Richland students fight UW System decision to end degree programs on their campus

A group of UW-Platteville Richland students attended the Board of Regents meeting Thursday to present a proposal to save degree programs on their campus.
Courtesy Jackson Kinney
A group of UW-Platteville Richland students attended the Board of Regents meeting Thursday to present a proposal to save degree programs on their campus.

Students at the UW-System’s smallest campus are fighting for it to stay open.

In November, System President Jay Rothman ordered UW-Platteville to end in-person classes next year at its Richland Center campus, in rural southwestern Wisconsin. Enrollment at the two-year college fell from 567 students in 2014 to just 60 this semester.

Since that announcement, the Richland community has been rallying to save the school. They gathered more than 1,000 signatures, and delivered a petition at a Board of Regents meeting Thursday.

In an interview with WUWM, Richland freshman Autumn Carter said she wanted to go there for her first two years of college to save money.

"It’s really close to home, I could like live at home, and it’s affordable too," Carter said. "We’re a very close-knitted group and we involve almost the whole student body when it comes to activities."

If the UW System’s plan goes forward, Carter will have to find a different school next year.

She and ten other Richland Center students, along with local elected officials, went to Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting in Madison with a plea for leaders to reconsider.

"There are so many students that are now losing that accessible education, that’s affordable, that’s close to home, that’s their gateway to success," said sophomore Emily Lund. "If we expect to have more educators, more healthcare workers, more farmers — we need to be able to educate them. And now we’re taking that away."

The students presented a proposal to the Board of Regents and President Jay Rothman. They want the System to hire a recruiter specifically for Richland to increase enrollment, and they want the school to be made a branch campus of UW-Madison rather than Platteville. But Lund says Rothman was not receptive.

"He told us, his decision’s been made, and he won’t change his decision because it’s for the better," recounts Lund.

In public comments to the Board of Regents, Rothman said the decision to end degree programs at the Richland campus was difficult. But he didn’t back down from it.

UW System President Jay Rothman speaks to the Board of Regents on Dec. 8.
UW System President Jay Rothman speaks to the Board of Regents on Dec. 8.

"I know my decision directly impacts students on the Richland campus," Rothman said. "But the enrollment numbers and strong desire to provide a high-quality college experience for our students, with so few on campus, left me with little choice."

The UW System is struggling with declining enrollment at most schools, especially its branch campuses. Former President Ray Cross decided in 2017 to merge the two-year colleges with four-year universities. For example, UW-Waukesha and UW-Washington County became branch campuses of UW-Milwaukee.

But that didn’t stop the enrollment losses, and the pandemic accelerated the trend.

Rothman hasn’t announced plans to close other two-year campuses, but he acknowledged many are well below capacity.

"However, we are going to work to ensure that these critical access points throughout the state continue to innovate to provide education and services that Wisconsinites rely on," Rothman said. "And I think we have some two-year campuses that have started to change the trajectory."

UW-Platteville’s interim chancellor has been tasked with coming up with a plan to repurpose the Richland campus.

The UW System says Richland students will be able to transfer to Platteville or other UW schools at the same tuition rate as Richland.

Students Emily Lund and Autumn Carter are still hoping Rothman will change his mind, or the Board of Regents will intervene. The regents did not make any public statements during the meeting about the situation.

When asked whether Rothman is reconsidering his decision related to the Richland campus, UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch wrote: "President Rothman articulated his position and welcomed the opportunity to listen to the students."

Editor's note: WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.

Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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