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Chancellor’s Blog: Conversation about the state budget

| Chancellor James Schmidt

UW-Eau Claire students offer continuous reminders to me about why I have made public higher education my life's work. The most recent reminder came Wednesday, when more than 100 students took time out of their very busy schedules to attend a Chancellor's Roundtable to discuss Governor Scott Walker's 2015-17 UW System budget proposal. 

The budget landscape

Here is some of the important information I shared with students as we started our conversation:

The balance between state support and student tuition has been shifting more to students for the past 40 years. In 1975, state support represented about 60 percent of UW-Eau Claire's general operating budget, and student tuition and other revenues represented 40 percent. If the budget proposed by the governor is approved, including another two-year tuition freeze, by 2017 state support would represent 22 percent of the general operating budget, while tuition and other revenues would represent 78 percent.

According to an estimate by the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, UW-Eau Claire's expected share of Governor Walker's proposed $300 million UW System budget reduction would be $7.6 million annually —a 23.1 percent cut to our current state funding. That is in addition to the $4.5 million deficit we are already experiencing due to previous state funding cuts, a tuition freeze and a slight decline in enrollment. Together, those cuts total $12.1 million, or about 13 percent of our current general fund budget.

I believe, and shared with our regional legislators, that the $300 million cut proposed by the governor is too deep and too fast (it would take effect July 1 of this year). I have asked our legislators to try to reduce the budget cut and extend the timeline for implementation.

Our conversation

Students asked thoughtful questions about the potential impacts of the proposed $300 million state funding cut. Students also asked what a proposed public authority model would mean for their educational experience.

They expressed genuine concern to me about how these proposed changes could affect availability of classes they need to graduate, class sizes, opportunities for participating in high-impact programs such as faculty-student research, our ability to retain quality faculty and instructional staff, the future of shared governance, and more.

I told the students that the magnitude of the proposed cuts will require us to think and work differently. Because about 85 percent of our budget goes to personnel costs, we would need to eliminate positions —although the exact number is not yet known.

I told them I support the movement to create a UW System public authority because it would grant the flexibilities and autonomy necessary to operate more efficiently and also provide the university with a sustainable, reliable funding stream from the sales tax. 

I assured them that, on my watch, preserving Excellence, which is emblazoned on our university seal, will be at the heart of every decision we make going forward and that every dollar we receive from their tuition will be spent on our core mission: to provide an exceptional education for this class of Blugolds and future Blugolds.

Students also have asked me whether there will be a huge tuition increase in the future to compensate for the state budget reductions. If the two-year tuition freeze proposed in the governor's budget is approved, we will have gone four years without any increase —that is unprecedented in UW System history. Having said that, I am committed to keeping a UW-Eau Claire education affordable for all students and would not support raising tuition significantly after the freeze expires.

What UW-Eau Claire is doing

I have instructed every division on campus to undertake a budget reduction exercise of 10, 15, and 20 percent and to report their findings to me within a month.

We will not, however, take an across-the-board approach to budget reductions, and I have formed action teams to find efficiencies, improve services and focus on our curriculum to increase the four-year graduation rate.

We will honor our pact with students to maintain the high-impact programs funded by the Blugold Commitment differential tuition, including providing up to 40 percent of the funds for financial aid to enable students of modest means to participate in programs that include faculty-student research, internships, study abroad and more. I told students we have a moral and ethical obligation to use Blugold Commitment funds as intended.

Protecting quality

I shared with students an insightful observation by my mentor, past Winona State University President Darrell Krueger, who said that access to a college education without quality is no bargain. I will work tirelessly with faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni and others to ensure UW-Eau Claire students have an affordable AND excellent education.

Stay informed

Please visit the UW-Eau Claire website for additional information about the state budget and updates as they become available.

Read more Chancellor's Blog posts.