UW System facing nearly $100 million in losses before next school year

    Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in fall
    Bascom Hall on the UW Madison campus in Madison, WI (CC by 2.0 generic)

    The same day University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross said campuses should prepare for cuts and layoffs, the UW Board of Regents held a virtual meeting with campus chancellors to take stock of the economic toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the state’s public university system. 

    Cross told reporters Thursday morning that campuses should prepare to streamline the system, which would mean eliminating duplicate programs across the state and asking campuses to change their mission statements. 

    “The University of Wisconsin System must refine the missions of its comprehensive universities to provide greater institutional distinctiveness and identity,” an executive summary of Cross’ plan states. 

    At the regents’ meeting Thursday afternoon, Cross said he doesn’t believe any UW institutions are at risk of meeting the same fate as Holy Family College, which recently shut down completely,  but there are difficult choices ahead.  

    “When we look back on the COVID-19 pandemic it will prove to have been the cause or catalyst for events of great magnitude,” Cross said. “In higher education, the economic devastation it has wrought will almost certainly be the demise of any number of colleges and universities, unable to weather the storm. We’ve already seen one in Wisconsin. I will urge us all to consider what the system will look like beyond this COVID-19 pandemic. We face some very critical and difficult choices. And while we cannot act in haste, we also must not delay.”

    After Cross’ pep talk, the system’s financial losses were laid bare by Vice President for Finance Sean Nelson. 

    UW system finances
    The University of Wisconsin system officials say it will lose nearly $100 million through the summer semester. (UW System)

    Each campus has lost huge amounts of revenue and faced unexpected expenses to deal with the crisis. Nelson said the cost to the system has been more than $200 million. Schools have gone through some cost saving efforts such as layoffs, furloughs and spending freezes, but those only save an estimated $65 million. 

    The federal CARES Act gave the system a needed boost, but provided less than $50 million in support. 

    That leaves an estimated financial loss of $98.6 million through just the summer semester, according to Nelson. 

    Beyond the summer semester, the system’s loss depends partly on whether or not students are on campus in the fall and what that decision does to enrollment and tuition revenue. 

    Individual campuses are contingency planning and coming up with solutions for the future. UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone said by early June he’d like to start making decisions — although he added the situation can change throughout the summer and into the fall. 

    He said the options included an entirely online fall semester or some sort of hybrid between online and in-person classes. 

    As campus administrations work through what they’ll do in August, they will also need to figure out how to implement Cross’ streamlining plan — which wasn’t addressed by the regents in Thursday’s meeting. 

    The executive summary of Cross’ plan says campuses should have programs ready by Jan. 2021 in order to be implemented for the start of the 2021-22 school year. 

    The next Board of Regents meeting is scheduled for June 4-5.

    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.