Richland Co. board members release plan to save UW-Richland campus
Community members have rallied in an attempt to save the UW Richland campus from being closed. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
A duo of Richland County board members released a plan Monday that aims to pull the UW-Richland campus from the brink of closure by adding bachelor degree programs, rebuilding the school’s recruitment efforts and sharing space with other local educational institutions.
The Richland Center community has been fighting since late last year to keep the campus alive after UW System President Jay Rothman announced the two-year school would no longer offer in-person instruction after the end of this academic year.
System leadership cited the school’s dwindling enrollment — just 54 students last semester — as the reason for its decision, yet the community has complained that management decisions by UW-Platteville, which took control of the campus in 2017, caused the steep enrollment decline.
“It’s obvious that the experiment of placing UW-Richland under UW-Platteville’s management has ended,” county board member Shaun Murphy-Lopez said in a statement. “It’s time to move on and look for a new model. We want UW System to come to the table with a new idea for oversight of UW-Richland.”
In the hopes of saving an institution the surrounding area sees as an economic anchor and community hub, residents and local officials have considered suing the UW System for breach of contract and pleaded with area legislators to intervene through the state budget process.
“My point is, the reason this campus started, flourished and is, was because of the people in this community who made it happen,” Richland Center Mayor Todd Coppernoll said at a community forum in January. “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.”
As the county, which manages the campus facilities while UW System manages the operation of classes and pays for faculty, continues to negotiate with administrators, Murphy-Lopez and another board member, Linda Gentges, unveiled a plan that aims to keep the campus open while directly targeting the needs of the community.
“The plan framework is a compilation of many ideas from the community,” Gentes said in a statement. “We’ve heard from so many people about how this campus has improved their lives, both economically and culturally.”
As a two-year school, UW-Richland has only awarded associate’s degrees, but through the plan, the school — which would no longer be affiliated with UW-Platteville — would offer a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing. The school would also offer a five-semester associate’s degree program to get a teaching certificate and a general education associate’s degree.
The nursing and teaching programs are directly aimed at addressing workforce shortages in WIsconsin.
“UW System Vice President for University Relations Jeff Buhrandt, who is representing UW System President Jay Rothman in negotiations, has asked us for creative solutions to stem the decline in enrollment,” Gentes said. “That’s why we’re offering ideas that will help fill workforce shortages.”
The plan would also reinstate a number of campus programs that have been discontinued since Platteville took over that community members and Richland officials have claimed worsened the enrollment decline.
Since UW System announced the campus closure, the community has repeatedly argued that enrollment wouldn’t have gotten so bad if Platteville had not taken away Richland’s dedicated recruiter position, which drove attendance by visiting area high schools to tout the benefits of starting college close to home at a more affordable school. Community members have also pointed to the ending of the campus’ popular international program as a cause of the enrollment decline — and subsequent revenue problems since international students pay full tuition rates.
Gentes and Murphy-Lopez’s plan would return both of those programs, as well as dual enrollment for area high school students to gain college credits before graduating.
The plan, according to a document released by the board members, would “serve as a pilot model for turning around declining enrollment at other 12 UW Colleges, with UW System affiliation.”
Since the system’s announcement about Richland, the leadership on two-year campuses and local officials responsible for the upkeep of those campuses have fretted about the future of their own schools and the possible effects on local economies and county budgets if the UW System shuts down more schools.
In addition to the instructional programs the plan proposes, the responsibility for campus buildings would also shift under the plan, which would shift ownership of some buildings to the Richland School District, Southwest Technical College and UW Extension.
To pay for the plan, Gentges and Murphy-Lopez have proposed that Richland County and UW System apply for grants offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture specifically aimed at providing educational opportunities in rural parts of the country as well as local fundraising from the community. Community members have regularly pointed to the success of the Richland County Campus Foundation as a sign of local support for the school. Tax records from 2019 show the foundation had $3 million in its accounts four years ago, yet community members have said that number is now about $6 million.
The Richland County board’s education committee, of which Gentges and Murphy-Lopez are members, will consider the plan at an upcoming meeting, according to a news release, and county leadership has a meeting set with System officials on April 7.
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