UW System asks campuses to consolidate classes to address financial shortcomings


April Lee/Advance-Titan — The UW System has developed a plan to streamline degree programs to address financial shortcomings caused by the systemwide tuition freeze, falling enrollments and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

In order to navigate the UW System’s uncertain financial future, system president Ray Cross is asking campuses to consolidate programs, eliminate some administrative tasks and develop a unified online education model across institutions.

The blueprint for the UW System Beyond COVID-19 executive summary outlines the system’s plan to streamline degree programs to address financial shortcomings caused by the systemwide tuition freeze, falling enrollments and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UW System is made up of 13 universities across 26 campuses, with UW-Madison and Milwaukee being designated as research universities and the other 11 being classified as comprehensive institutions.

The plan says each comprehensive university cannot be “all things to all people” while being financially sustainable, and proposes that each institution focus resources on “distinctive programs and collaborate with the System’s universities to serve the state’s needs across other programs.”

The plan argues that reducing programs at each campus will make campuses “stronger, not weaker,” because the “futures of these universities depend on it.”

“It is not a should-do; it is a must-do,” the plan reads.

Doing this will require reallocating university and system resources, discontinuing some university programs, increasing program collaboration between universities and increasing investment in other programs.

“The need to focus (on) comprehensive university missions and link limited resources to the revised or updated university mission will create greater distinctiveness and identity for each university,” the plan states.

Universities are expected to identify ways programs and services contribute to student success and institutional distinctiveness while they look for opportunities to generate resources to expand and develop new programs.

The evaluation and prioritization of programs should be completed by Jan. 15, 2021, while revised university mission statements are to be submitted to the Board of Regents by March 2021.

“This is an aggressive timeline, but this is critically important to the future of the comprehensive universities and to the state of Wisconsin,” the document states.

Additionally, the plan requires the UW System to consolidate and streamline administrative operational functions.

The plan says too many variations exist in the way campuses provide operational functions such as purchasing, human resources, IT and business services. It argues that those variations are inefficient and costly, while increasing the risk of errors.

“Many of these functions can now be performed off-site in one or more locations dispersed around the state,” the document says. “The need to have all aspects of each function performed individually on each campus is no longer necessary.”

Each comprehensive institution has the IT infrastructure to support many administrative functions and academic programs, resulting in an overinvesting in IT systems, the plan argues.

Current IT infrastructure “creates complexities that do not support the missions of the comprehensives and increases the costs of new systems and services,” the document says.

When the UW System restructured, and coupled each UW Colleges campus to a corresponding four-year university, System administration started developing UW-Shared Services to serve all UW universities except UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.

UW-Shared Services aims to identify administrative functions that can be consolidated. The System aims to identify functions to UW-Shared Services by June 2021, and complete the transition of IT functions by January 2022.

Beyond consolidating courses and administrative duties, the plan calls for a “unified strategic online education delivery model” across UW System institutions.

The plan says courses and degree programs are delivered to two different student populations: nontraditional or working adult students and traditional students.

The plan argues that nontraditional students usually seek professional online academic programs and traditional students seek individual online courses to supplement and advance their progress and time to degree.

The UW Extended Campus has focused on educating nontraditional students through intentionally designed and delivered online courses. But, the arrival of COVID-19 has required face-to-face classes to move online for everyone.

“The current experience has highlighted the necessity to improve the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of all online or alternate delivery modes of our courses and academic degree programs,” the document says.

The UW System believes nontraditional students are the “fastest growing and largest segment of the population seeking higher education” in Wisconsin and the United States.

“The UW System is not a significant ‘player’ in serving these students, despite the high-quality education our universities provide,” the document states.

The Census Bureau estimates that 815,000 adults in Wisconsin have some college credit but no degree.

The UW System only captures roughly 5% to 8% of the share of the upper Midwest “because it does not have a unified approach to online education,” the document says.

The System will continue product development and adoption of the unified online model over the course of the 2020-21 academic year and beyond.