More Questions than Answers as Milwaukee Prepares for UW System Merger

Dec 13, 2017

With change comes uncertainty -- and uncertain is exactly the vibe on UW-Milwaukee’s campus, as faculty, staff and students begin to learn more about the future of their school.

Wisconsin’s public university system will look different in 2018. Come next fall, UWM will merge with a couple two-year UW campuses.

The move is part of a larger “restructuring” of UW schools, as created by system president Ray Cross. No more two-year colleges; they’ll be absorbed by their nearest four-year institution. Around here, that means UW-Waukesha and UW-Washington County will join UW-Milwaukee.

The UW Board of Regents approved this reorganization in November. Now, the work begins on individual campuses.

So far, there are plenty of questions, but not yet many answers.

'We don't have all the answers'

Those leading the transition in southeastern Wisconsin are beginning their work by hosting public listening sessions, to gauge what questions exist in the various campus communities. Tuesday marked the first of two sessions in Milwaukee; leaders have already visited Waukesha and Washington County.

Transition leaders Paula Rhyner and Ron Perez field questions from UW-Milwaukee community members at a public meeting Tuesday.
Credit Rachel Morello

Former UWM professors Ron Perez and Paula Rhyner are leading the charge here. They say they’ve heard most of the same questions across campuses: will jobs be cut? Will departments get consolidated? What will the financial situation look like?

At Tuesday’s meeting, UWM academic and support staff questioned the leaders about how the merger will affect the school’s international student population, and how questions of curriculum duplication among campuses will be handled.

Most of Perez’s answers consisted of “I’m not sure,” or “That’s a good question…” He says the reality is that it’s fairly early in the process, and even though he’s leading, he’s often just as much in the dark as many of his colleagues.

“People, as humans, are naturally somewhat uncomfortable when they don’t have all the answers. And the fact is, we don’t have all the answers,” Perez explains. “We’ll be doing a lot of this thing and making changes as we go.”

Functional Groups

One thing Perez and Rhyner do know: with such a wide variety of concerns, they can’t possibly lead the charge alone.

So, their plan is to create what they’re calling “functional groups” – mini-teams that will work to identify issues the merger could potentially create, and come up with solutions. There will be seven teams in total:

  • Academic affairs: Issues related to continuing education, curriculum, library/research, student advising
  • Accreditation: Looking at how UW-Milwaukee, UW-Waukesha and UW-Washington County can maintain accreditation, to maintain the flow of financial aid
  • Enrollment management: Issues of admissions, financial aid, registration, student work and internship experiences
  • Student affairs: Including athletic events, anything under the umbrella of student services
  • Finance & operations: Budget & finance, facilities, human resources, information technology, safety & compliance
  • Communications & external relations: Matters concerning alumni relations, branding/marketing, community engagement, development, government relations, media relations
  • Governance: Managing faculty/academic staff & different employment categories, contracts, tenure, workflow

These seven functional groups are specific to the southeastern Wisconsin merger between Milwaukee, Waukesha and Washington County; UW System leaders have tasked each merging conglomerate with designing its own transitional teams. 

Perez hopes to form the groups by early January. Each will need to present its ideas to higher-ups by June 30.

Including the Community
Nigel Rothfels, UWM's director of undergraduate research, expresses his concerns at Tuesday's listening session.
Credit Rachel Morello

The transition will follow a pretty tight timeline – and faculty and staff acknowledge that things will move quickly.  That’s why, according to UWM academic adviser Laura Stark, people want to make sure they get on board with the facts fast.

“I guess the assumption for us sometimes is, ‘are we going to be included in the process?‘” Stark asks, remarking that she’s heartened by the fact that leaders are hosting these listening sessions, and plan to open meetings up to the public once the seven planning teams are in place.

She and others hope it will help reveal areas where folks on the ground – like her – can help higher-ups identify problems and solutions.

“If they don’t know all of the things that are going on -- because we are the ones on the front lines with the students, having to explain these things – they don’t always understand that same perspective. Like, ‘oh yeah, this makes sense in theory, but like, here’s why it doesn’t in practice,’ or ‘here’s what we would need to actually put this into practice.”

Even though uncertainty looms for many, in general, audience members at the Tuesday meeting seemed optimistic.

“Faculty and staff on all of the campuses are still looking towards opportunities, and a number of the faculty have actually shared sort of an eagerness to start connecting -- some have already started to do it,” says committee leader Paula Rhyner. “That’s exciting, that they’re really looking forward to working together.”

The planning committee’s final listening session will take place next Monday, Dec. 18 at UWM’s Fireside Lounge. Community members can also continue to provide feedback online.

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