Save UW Richland

Jay Rothman is making a solid, even obvious, business decision. I still think he’s wrong.

Rothman, President of the UW System, has decided to shut down the UW Platteville – Richland Center campus. In 2014 that campus had almost 600 students and today it has only 60. When Rothman goes to the Legislature to ask for more money they’ll ask him how well the System is being managed. It’s hard to justify a whole UW campus for a few dozen students. I get it.

There is an issue with communication with the Richland community and how the whole thing has been handled. Officials in Richland Center and Richland County, which leases the land to the UW, have felt blind-sided and shut out of the process that produced this result. It has gotten to the point where the County Board demanded that a third party mediator be present in any meeting with the UW. That seems like an over-reaction, but nonetheless it gives you a sense of the strained relationship.

Communication isn’t the main problem but it’s indicative of the larger one and that brings me to my case for keeping the campus open, even if it’s bad business. The biggest underlying issue that concerns me in Wisconsin (and in the country and in the world) is the growing chasm between urban and rural areas and between those with a college degree and those without one.

Anything we can do to build the connection between Madison (literally, the city, and more broadly, the capital and the university) and the rest of the state is a good thing. Campuses like Richland aren’t just nodes of a college education, they are (or at least should be) listening points for the UW, places where the System can hear about the needs and concerns of people outside of Madison and their other bigger campuses. If anything, Rothman and other senior UW officials should be spending more time on these two-year campuses and in rural Wisconsin in general.

And in that sense Richland is incredibly important and valuable. And worth the investment.

Have a good weekend.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Save UW Richland

  1. Dave,

    I am heading a task force in Washington County on the crisis for the two-year colleges in Wisconsin. We are not done with our digging, but are headed toward a revived model. We have both a UW College here in West Bend and a tech college campus. They compete directly. Will have our new model developed by the end of February.

    Will keep you posted.

    Agree that Rothman was ham-handed. His move was the antithesis of the Wisconsin Idea.


  2. Totally agree about the importance of maintaining a higher education presence in rural areas. (To mention nothing of the fact that even if it’s “bad for business” education shouldn’t be viewed evaluated from a short-term fiscal lens).


  3. Dave: thank you for covering the decision to “close” UW-Richland. You are right that it is the wrong decision to close the campus, because, as you argue, this campus serves rural Wisconsin in a fundamentally “Wisconsin Idea” way. But there are so many other reasons why this is a bad, thoughtless, and even dishonest idea, and as someone who has lived in Richland County for 43 years and been enriched by the culture of lifelong learning the campus has inspired, I am glad my county isn’t automatically caving to the enormous and powerful aloofness of the University of Wisconsin System.

    There are centralized mismanagement reasons why UW-Richland went from 600 to 60 students so short a time. Former University of Wisconsin President Ray Cross’s idea to first “regionalize” the two year campuses and then affiliate them with 4-year colleges took away the UW-Richland campus programs (especially international), faculty, and dean. It even took away the ability of the campus to recruit students.

    I will spare you the details, but let me just say that UW-Richland has been a scrappy and innovative campus that always found ways to strengthen their enrollment and mission. Thus, UW-Richland was the smallest 2-year campus, but also the most cost-effective per student in the system. It was the greatest endowed (wealthy Richland County residents were impressed with the quality and mission of the campus and donated accordingly) of the two-year campuses because it served a need and contributed so much to the life-long learning and health of the area. I have heard that closing UW-Richland will save .04% of the UW-System budget, hardly a needed or even justified cost-cutting measure.

    There seem to be deliberate reasons why the campus was undermined, many political and thoughtless. Since Ray Cross’s mismanagement, the UW-Richland and Richland County have asked for the autonomy and agency–a student recruiter and resources–to build the campus back up. While the affiliation model stripped away the bones of the campus, the county was promised this and that, but they were continually denied agency in spite of the lack of any success from their affiliation plan. Parents complained to the county that their children applied to UW-Richland and were instead recruited by their affiliation, UW-Plateville.

    After over 55 years of investment in their 2-year campus and recent years of trying to build UW-Richland up with the “help” of regionalizations and affiliations, the Richland County board understood that the system’s scheme was either intentional–to justify the closing of the UW-Richland campus based on lack of students, or the result of extreme mismanagement.

    Whatever the case, trust has been lost, and that is why the County is wise to suggest future negotiations and talks should include an independent arbiter. One would think President Jay Rothman, new to the scene, and (one would hope) unaware of this scheme or mismanagement, would support this prudent idea. UW-Richland, Richland County, rural Wisconsin, the state of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Idea deserve a fair hearing.


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