By Matt Johnson
Citizens voicing opinions at a listening session in Richland Center last week by Rep. Tony Kurtz and State Senator Howard Marklein were virtually unanimous it their opinion the UW-Richland should receive help, re-investment and continue to be part of the community.
Enrollment at UW-R has fallen to under 70 students after holding a student population of more than 370 eight years ago. The UW-System has taken away from UW-R's budget as the decline occurred – no longer offering a recruiting specialist solely at UW-R and eliminating the position of the dean of the college.
The UW-System late last year asked to set up contingency plans to operate UW-Richland as a distance-learning campus with instruction coming from UW-Platteville.
Kurtz and Marklein listened to an hour of commentary that was civil, yet one-sided. Some students held signs asking for the UW-R campus to be “saved.” The event was held in the Richland Center City Council chambers.
Kathy Fry was the first speaker and in a standing-room-only crowd. Her comments spun together ideas shared by people who wish to see UW-Richland continue.
“Obviously many of us are here to speak about the closure or potential closure of the Richland campus,” Fry said.
Fry outlined reasons for falling enrollment and recruiting troubles. Fry was also keen to mention the importance UW-R has in Richland County.
“The benefits of keeping in-person instruction at UW-Richland far outweigh the costs,” Fry said. “The economic impact of the campus in our area has been calculated at over $7 million per year. Shuttering (UW-Richland) will cripple our local economy and make Richland Center a less desirable place for doctors and other professionals to locate. Local businesses will suffer.”
UW-Richland has traditionally had a strong presence of international students. Fry said that was taken away when the UW-System pulled UW-Richland's recruiting away from the college. Fry said the UW-Richland Foundation offered to pay for a recruiter for the school, but that proactive initiative was turned down by the UW-System.
Directly speaking to Kurtz and Marklein, Fry asked how the university could be dismantled under their watch.
“Was this due to gross mismanagement, illegal activities, or an intentional attempt to gut UW-Richland?” Fry said. “You owe it to your constituents to find the answers and give us the truth.”
Fry said that Marklein is co-chair and Kurtz a member of the legislature's joint finance committee. With the state of Wisconsin having an excess of operational funds and there being talk of refund, Fry said some of that money could be used to bolster and save UW-Richland.
Fry's speech was followed by clapping and cheers from the audience.
Further commentary from the audience intertwined more state-wide issues, such as gerrymandering, and investing in a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks, and put that into a perspective that voters who've had heavily altered political districts have no local politician representing their point-of-view.
Former town of Marshall clerk Don Hubbs said the state's $7 billion surplus is proof that there are resources available to reinvigorate UW-Richland. Hubbs said that the surplus could be used as part of a package to help small governments fighting operational budget shortfalls. This is a situation Richland County has been dealing with since July.
“...Out of a $7 billion surplus it seems you can't find anything our direction to help us out,” Hubbs said. “This is just so wrong for so many different reasons.”
Former State Sen. Dale Schultz posed a number of questions he has heard traveling in the greater Richland Center community. At the top of the list was: “Where and when was the consultation with the local stakeholders regarding the UW-Richland campus closure?”
Schultz also asked, “How will you use your powerful positions to prioritize funding for our campus and our community aids,which are rapidly falling behind?”
The entire listening session can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBeIQC0HV_w
(Matt Johnson can be reached online at email@example.com)