Updated at 2:50 p.m. CT
University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross directed campuses Thursday to prepare to cut academic programs and brace for layoffs as the coronavirus pandemic deepens the system's financial losses.
Cross said he wants campuses to evaluate their programs by January with an eye toward cost, whether they are duplicated at another campus, and student demand. System officials will decide which courses to eliminate subject to regents' approval, Cross told reporters during a video conference Wednesday afternoon.
Campuses should be ready with scaled-down course catalogs by fall 2021, Cross said. The only guarantee he could offer was that each campus will continue to offer basics such as English and math that undergraduates need to earn a diploma. He said no campuses are at risk of closing but that layoffs were unavoidable. The program cuts will apply only to the system’s regional universities. UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, the system’s two largest campuses, would be exempt.
“We’re facing some unprecedented challenges,” Cross said. “We’re trying to be responsible stewards. If we want the system to survive on the other side of this pandemic ... we’ve got to act now..”
Cross also said he wants to consolidate functions such as information technology and human resource operations by January 2022. He wants to bolster online course offerings, too, ordering the system to create four additional courses by the beginning of June.
Cross said the system has been inching along on consolidation efforts in recent years but will have to scramble now as the pandemic freezes up the economy.
The system shut down in-person classes in March and told students to move back home. System officials estimate the moves will result in a nearly $170 million loss for the spring semester alone. Those costs include the refunds for on-campus parking, dining and housing, technology purchases to move classes online, payments to student workers who lost their jobs and athletic ticket sales.
The system took another hit in April when Gov. Tony Evers ordered state agencies to reduce spending by 5% by July to save roughly $70 million. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told that school’s Faculty Senate on Monday that the system’s share of that cut would amount to $46 million to $47 million, with $20 million coming from UW-Madison.
New budget figures released Wednesday show an $870 million drop in tax collections in April.
The situation is made worse by declining state aid for system schools. Cross said in his plan that the system’s portion of the state budget has shrunk 6% since the 2007-08 fiscal year. And Republican legislators have kept tuition for in-state undergraduates frozen since the 2013-15 state budget.
System regents in mid-April overwhelmingly approved employee furloughs systemwide. Cross has ordered employees in system administration to take one furlough day per month for the next year, an effort he says will save $3 million. Chancellors are free to impose their own furlough plans at their respective campuses.
Mike Mikalsen, an aide to Republican state Sen. Steve Nass, vice-chairman of the Senate's universities and technical colleges committee and a frequent UW System critic, applauded Cross' plan. He said the pandemic presents an existential threat to higher education and that states' budget deficits will grow so deep that legislators won't be able to provide much help.
“We give Ray a lot of credit for getting out ahead of the curve,” Mikalsen said. “Even if we are able to make it through this coming school year, the impacts in the next biennium are going to be far worse than what we’re facing right now. And a lot of people are missing that.”
The regents were set to discuss the plan during a meeting Thursday, then go into closed session to discuss what their agenda called “programmatic and financial impacts of enrollment and revenue changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, that if discussed publicly, would undermine the UW System’s competitive position.” The agenda cites an exception to the state's open meeting laws allowing closed meetings for competitive or bargaining reasons.
The UW schools aren’t the only colleges struggling to weather the pandemic’s financial fallout. Holy Family College in Manitowoc announced Monday that it would close its doors by the end of August. The school was already struggling with a deficit and enrollment for 2020 was down before the pandemic struck, the college’s president, Robert Callahan, told the State Journal.
Edgewood College in Madison plans to buy out about 30 full-time positions by the end of the spring semester and increase student-to-instructor ratios over the next few years by eliminating 10% of course sections offered. The school still plans to have students on campus this fall.