The University of Wisconsin-Platteville is proposing its smallest campus focus on online education starting next school year while the county that owns the campus buildings is considering other ideas, including legal action against the UW System.
Debate about the future of UW-Platteville Richland is heating up as the campus’ 59 degree-seeking students return to classes next week. UW System President Jay Rothman announced just before Thanksgiving that the spring 2023 semester will be the campus’ last for in-person degree programs. He said low enrollment and financial pressure led him to make the difficult decision.
Some in Richland County have opposed UW System’s plans, with community members and local leaders blaming UW-Platteville for mismanaging the campus since it assumed oversight in 2018. They believe their campus can be saved with more money to adequately support recruitment and enrollment efforts.
Richland County has a financial stake in the campus, owning and maintaining seven university buildings. For example, the county poured half a million dollars into some roofs that won’t be paid off until 2028.
If UW-Richland focuses on online education, as UW-Platteville’s latest plan calls for, many community members believe the change effectively closes the campus while leaving the county on the hook to pay for mostly empty buildings.
UW-Platteville’s plan for UW-Richland says the need for campus facilities will “transition,” though to what is unclear at this point. UW-Platteville and UW System officials will work with local leaders to “determine what the onsite sustainable presence will be to meet university and regional needs,” the plan said.
Under a previous draft plan — first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal and a copy of which was obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — there would have been no in-person programs and the need for campus facilities would be “minimal.” That reference was removed in the final draft released to reporters this week.
Other aspects of UW-Platteville’s plan call for allowing UW-Richland students who have not finished their degrees to take up to 40 credits of classes at either the main campus or the Baraboo Sauk County campus at Richland’s tuition rate and to receive a $1,500 housing stipend. UW-Platteville also offered free parking to UW-Richland students who transfer to the main campus.
Richland County Board Chair Marty Brewer did not return a request for comment on UW-Platteville’s plan for the campus. The board’s vice chair, Shaun Murphy-Lopez, said he didn’t see any tangible plans about how the campus facilities would be used nor could he see how the UW plan would benefit the county.
“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” he said of what UW-Platteville proposed.
UW-Richland students proposed UW-Madison manage oversight of their campus. It could alleviate some of the enrollment crunch at the growing flagship university and ease the transition for students from small towns by having a couple hundred start at the Richland campus. It could also allow UW-Madison to develop more of a focus on rural Wisconsin, according to the proposal.
UW-Madison officials declined to comment on the students’ idea, referring the question to UW System. UW System is not considering the proposal, spokesperson Mark Pitsch said.
The Richland County board is coming up with its own plan for UW-Richland and met behind closed doors earlier this week to discuss legal options related to the campus, Murphy-Lopez said. No vote was taken.
The UW Board of Regents and Richland County signed a 75-year lease for $75, or $1 annually. The county covers utilities and maintenance while UW agrees to maintain a branch campus and provide adequate staff. The two parties split the janitorial costs. The agreement goes through 2042 but can be automatically terminated June 30 of any year under two conditions.
It’s unclear if either or both conditions have to be met to invalidate the agreement. The conditions are if the state Legislature doesn’t provide adequate funding and if the Legislature fundamentally changes how the branch campuses operate.
The Valley Sentinel, the newspaper for nearby Spring Green, penned a recent editorial urging Richland County to sue UW System for failing to hold up its end of the agreement.
“It’s become increasingly clear that the only way to save UW-Richland is inside a courtroom,” the editorial said.
The Valley Sentinel said Rothman’s “unilateral directive” to end in-person degree programs “appears to be the best example of breach of contract and financial responsibility the County could ask for in court.”
From UW System’s perspective, the lease is not being terminated, Pitsch said. Officials are planning for UW to have a presence at the campus and will engage with the county on the use of campus facilities.
State lawmakers whose districts include the campus − Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green − got an earful from community members about the importance of UW-Richland at a listening session earlier this week.
Both lawmakers have lamented the community losing the once-vibrant campus. But they questioned what could be done to save it and indicated support for UW making changes.
Both Kurtz and Marklein serve on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. The committee will play a major role in deciding what to do with the state’s record-high surplus that is projected to surpass $7 billion.