‘Students learn here’: Richland Center residents make plea to save campus

By: - January 27, 2023 1:40 pm

Community members have rallied in an attempt to save the UW Richland campus from being closed. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The Pippin Conference Center at Melvill Hall on UW-Richland’s campus was packed to the brim Thursday evening as community members, current and former faculty and students made their emotion-filled case to keep in-person instruction on the campus. 

Late last year, UW System President Jay Rothman announced that UW-Richland, now the smallest of the system’s two-year branch campuses, would shut down to in-person learning at the end of this semester. Community members and local elected officials were shocked at the sudden announcement and the sense that they were being left behind after years of what they considered misguided decisions out of their control bled the campus dry. 

The campus has seen enrollment plummet in recent years, dropping from an all-time high of 567 students in fall 2014 to an all time low of 60 at the beginning of this academic year. 

In a presentation at the meeting Thursday, Richland County Board Supervisor Shaun Murphy-Lopez said decisions by UW System to restructure and regionalize the state’s two-year campus directly correlated with the precipitous drop. For Richland, that decision led to an uneasy partnership with UW-Platteville that residents always saw as an arranged marriage in which the larger four year school ended up taking their kids. 

In a meeting aimed at providing local leaders a chance to hear the community’s ideas for saving the campus, speaker after speaker pointed to Platteville’s decision to cut a full-time recruiter from Richland, end its lucrative international program and the perceived indifference from Platteville leadership which, they said, failed to stand up for a campus that had been previously referred to as the “crown jewel of the UW System.” 

“We want to move forward,” Murphy-Lopez, who sits on the county board’s education committee, said. 

The management of the campus is divided between the county and UW System. The county is responsible for the management and upkeep of the campus buildings while the system provides the faculty.

In his presentation, Murphy-Lopez pointed to data from Platteville’s budget that showed the full time staff at Richland had dropped from 38 employees in 2011 to 22 this year and the campus budget had dropped from $3.1 million in 2012 to $1.4 million in 2022. If the budget had kept up with inflation over the last decade, he said, the campus budget would now be $3.9 million.

The standing room only crowd packed into a conference room for the Jan. 26 meeting. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

He also said that the decline in enrollment can’t be blamed on a shrinking pool of graduating high school seniors because K-12 enrollment in southwest Wisconsin school districts had dropped just 9%, far behind the 87% drop that Richland has seen. 

In December, the Richland County Board unanimously passed a resolution requesting a $4 million budget for the 2023-24 academic year. 

Richland Center Mayor Todd Coppernoll spoke about how in the months leading up to the announcement, the county, the city and the system had been having productive conversations about the future of the campus — yet that all changed on a dime. He asked the crowd how many of them had ever worked on the campus, taken a class on the campus or hosted an international student studying on the campus. To each question, about half the crowd raised their hands. 

“My point is, the reason this campus started, flourished and is, was because of the people in this community who made it happen,” Coppernoll said. “That was this community doing those things. I believe if given a fair shot at it, the people of this community would do that again.” 

“I think the point is local control, more local control,” he continued. “Even if you change the footprint a little bit, if we had fewer buildings, lowered the cost, and got more kids in here — and you’ll tell me we need a recruiter, which we do — if that’s the blueprint, if that’s the roadmap,  then let’s try that.”

Among the speakers were K-12 teachers, former faculty members, a retired Richland County judge, county board members and students — many wearing “save the campus” buttons, making impassioned arguments for the value of the campus in Richland Center pitching ideas such as a commission or task force to study how to save the state’s two-year campuses and more autonomy for Richland itself. 

“Students learn here, and they graduate and they are successful and they take care of my teeth and they take care of my body and they take care of my finances,” retired professor Jean Birkett said. “I didn’t teach them all that, I pounded a little English in their head, I simply want to say that I know our students learn here and there’s no reason they won’t continue learning and the community won’t support them.” 

Birkett pointed to the Richland County Campus Foundation, which supports the campus through donations for scholarships and upkeep. Tax records from 2019, the latest year available, show the foundation had $3 million, yet Birkett said there’s now $6 million in the foundation’s accounts that are meant for the campus. 

Despite the outpouring of support for the campus, the legislators in attendance were skeptical that it could be saved. State Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc), both represent the area and as members of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee have significant influence over the state budget. Yet Kurtz said that they still had to convince their colleagues to provide the funding and $4 million for just 60 students was a tough sell.

Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) addresses the crowd. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“I took your proposal to some of my members, I sit on the Joint Finance Committee with Sen. Marklein, I know some of you think we can move mountains, folks we cannot move mountains,” said Kurtz, whose daughter attended the campus and is now in pharmacy school. “We have other members we have to persuade and convince them why it’s a good idea. When I went and showed the plan to a couple of my other colleagues, the first thing they said, I had one get a calculator out … 60 students divided by $4 million is roughly $66,000 a student. He looks at me and says ‘Tony, that doesn’t pencil out very well.’ I’m being brutally honest with you, that I can probably persuade a few, but I know it would be a fruitless effort because we would lose. I can try it, I will do that, but I will tell you today that it would probably lose.”

The UW System representative at the meeting, UW System Vice President for University Relations Jeff Buhrandt, said the system is going to continue working to find a plan for the campus.

“This is the beginning of a process for us, we’re going to start having conversations with county leadership about what this process looks like and what our presence in this community continues to be,” he said. “I heard a lot of innovative ideas tonight, I think thinking outside the box and new ways we can approach this is really important.” 

The final speaker of the evening, 11-year-old Stella Woodhouse, said she’s worried about what the closure means for her future. 

“For a lot of years I was thinking I was going to have this opportunity to get an education and wanted to be when I grew up,” she said. “I feel like I’m not going to be able to do that anymore, I feel like I’m going to have to save up a lot more than $375 in the bank. I feel like I’ve lost a wonderful opportunity to get a bunch of knowledge, I feel like I’ve lost an opportunity to grow and learn.”


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.