UW System President Jay Rothman announced in December that the UW-Platteville Richland campus will close to in-person classes after the spring 2023 semester. (UW Richland Twitter)
Sitting squarely within the senate district of one of the most powerful legislators in Madison wasn’t enough to save UW-Platteville Richland, which University of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman announced last month would be closing to in-person classes next fall.
Rothman said that low enrollment and financial pressures made keeping the system’s smallest campus open “untenable,” and data shows that since 2014, in-person enrollment has dropped from a 2014 peak of 567 to just 60 students this fall. But community and campus leaders say that decline shows a string of negligent decisions by a string of UW System administrators and tight walleted Republican legislators.
The result is the closure of a campus that for decades has been a point of pride for the community and an important avenue to higher education for the residents of a poor rural county too far from the larger metropolitan areas of Madison and La Crosse to draw much attention.
“You killed the campus by bleeding it to death,” Dale Schultz, a former state Senator who represented the area from 1990 until his retirement in 2015, says of the decisions that led up to the campus’ closure. “This is 17th century bleeding medicine.”
Schultz and others point to the 2017 decision to merge the state’s two-year colleges with the four-year universities, the subsequent decisions to cut Richland’s full-time recruiter position and move international students to the larger UW-Platteville campus, as well as a string of austerity focused budgets passed by Republicans in the state Legislature, as the factors that killed campus, not this semester’s low enrollment numbers.
“When the pandemic hit, UW-Platteville took the exchange students out of UW-Richland, well that knocks the numbers down a bit,” Schultz says. “They took a recruiter out of our office, so we couldn’t do what we were so successful at across the state as well as our local high schools, for recruiting kids who wanted to access the system but didn’t know if they were quite ready.”
People looked to UW Richland as an entrance point to the UW System, Schultz adds. “Remember, Richland County is one of the poorest counties in the state. It’s a place that is remote, it’s halfway between Madison and La Crosse, you’ve got to travel an hour to get to a community double our size. You can make a case that cries out for access,” he says. “The entire history of the campus is people recognizing the value of a quality higher education. … If we were ever going to make the county and city prosperous, it would begin with investing in the intellectual capital in the greater community.”
The hit that the local economy will take from the campus’ closure is just starting to come into view, but Schultz’s former chief of staff Todd Albaugh says the effect will be massive.
“You’ll lose the opportunity for folks from a more rural area to have a direct access to higher education,” says Albaugh, whose family history is deeply intertwined with the campus. He attended UW Richland, his father served as the athletic director and his grandmother was involved in its founding. “It’s the quintessential example of the Wisconsin Idea. It was able to bring quality higher education to people who might not otherwise have it. There have been studies that UW Richland is responsible for millions annually being pumped into the local economy. That’s going to be a huge hit for one of the poorest counties in the state of Wisconsin.”
Richland County board member Linda Gentges, chair of the county’s education committee, says the loss of a functioning two-year college is going to harm the community’s ability to attract employers.
“We know that companies looking to expand into areas are interested in the quality of the local two-year system,” Gentges says. “A high functioning two-year college can make a strong case for investment. We’re not only losing what we had but we’re losing our future.”
Hovering over the closure for Schultz and Albaugh is the timing of the announcement after the November election and the fact that the district is now represented by Sen. Howard Marklein, who serves as the co-chair of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, which controls the state budget.
“Here’s the deal: In 2014 enrollment at Richland campus was somewhere north of 500 students,” Albaugh says. “Now in 2022 they’re sitting around 60.” That drop coincides with the period after Schultz left office in 2015. “I’m not saying it’s a direct result,” adds Albaugh. But, he adds, Schultz’s successor, Howard Marklein, is co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee. “There’s also a $6.6 billion state surplus. It’s not lost on me that Howard’s been representing this area since 2015 and the shared revenue portion that’s been given to campus has gone down.”
Richland County is the owner of the campus buildings and responsible for their upkeep while UW System is responsible for paying the salaries of campus employees. From 2017 through 2019, the county budgeted $63,000 for the buildings. That number jumped to $80,000 in 2020 but dropped to $60,000 in 2021 and $40,000 in 2022.
Marklein, however, said that everything that could have saved the campus had already been tried.
“The University of Wisconsin System and the Board of Regents have been evaluating all of their campuses for many years,” Marklein, whose spokesperson did not make available for an interview, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the UW Platteville – Richland Campus has had a steady decline in enrollment over time. I have talked about enrollment concerns with several Chancellors who have overseen the campus throughout my terms as State Senator. The UW System has focused on recruitment, made programming adjustments, invested financial resources and the county even built a dorm – but enrollment continued to decline no matter how much money, resources and attention the UW System invested.”
He also said he was encouraged by the coordination between system administrators and community leaders that has happened since the decision was announced.
“I hope the Richland community is open to the possibilities and opportunities that a new approach for this campus could entail,” he said. “I have heard from several local leaders who are encouraged by the collaboration that has already started and they are optimistic about the future.”
But Gentges says she felt blindsided by the decision and that neither she nor the county board chair have heard much about what comes next.
“It’s been a press release and no communication, nothing,” she says. “It’s been extremely difficult in my mind from a government standpoint and a county board that’s befuddled by this and what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Albaugh and Schultz also lament the decision to announce the campus closure right after Marklein’s reelection, preventing it from becoming an important local issue for voters to consider.
“Where was the community discussion with the university about what needed to be done to be successful?” Schultz asks. “This looks malicious at best and criminal at worst. I think the UW administration and Board of Regents ought to be ashamed of themselves. You look at what little money was requested to keep this campus, it’s not going to make a hill of beans difference in the entire system, it will mean the world for kids trying to access the system, it will mean the world to the community.”
“Is the intent to starve Richland county out of existence? I don’t get it, what’s the grand plan?” Shultz adds. “During the entire election there was no discussion being raised by the university, local legislators.”
Now that the decision has already been made, the community is trying to save its campus. Last week, a group of 12 Richland students went to the UW System Board of Regents meeting to present Rothman with a petition signed by more than 1,400 people asking for the decision to be reconsidered.
But Albaugh says the choices that led to the closure are hard to walk back.
“When you add all of that up, it’s like going and buying a plant, then you set it on the kitchen table, close all the blinds and don’t water it for a month and then come back and the plant is dead,” he says. “That’s exactly what the state Legislature and System and administrators in Platteville have done to the Richland campus. They set it up for failure.”
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