UW merger will take until end of 2019

MADISON — A plan to merge the University of Wisconsin System's two- and four-year schools is proving challenging to execute and likely won't be complete until at least the end of 2019, chancellors and the two-year schools' leader told regents Thursday.

The regents in November approved UW System President Ray Cross' proposal to make the 13 two-year schools branch campuses of seven nearby four-year schools as of July 1. The four-year schools will officially take control of the two-year campuses on that date pending approval of the Higher Learning Commission, which must give the four-year schools permission to award associate degrees.

The commission is expected to issue a decision in June, UW System spokeswoman Stephane Marquis said. Approval would mean associate degrees could carry the four-year schools' names as early as December.

But how the rest of the merger will look remains vague.

The seven four-year chancellors told the regents Thursday that they've created multiple transition teams and have been meeting with leaders in their communities about the merger. But, the chancellors added, they're still wrestling with daunting logistics, such as whether to rename the branch campuses, how to retain the smaller campuses' identities, how to maintain student access and navigating layers of bureaucracy.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said he still doesn't know how resources would be divvied up. UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone said the work is like "trying to fix a bicycle while riding it."

UW Colleges Chancellor Cathy Sandeen, leader of the two-year schools, said the nuts-and-bolts transition will last until at least Dec. 31, 2019, largely because of a U.S. Department of Education decision that the two-year schools must award financial aid in their current format for the 2018-19 academic year. Most of the hard changes will take place in the 2019-20 year, she said.

"This restructure is not like merging two campuses together," she said.

Cross acknowledged that the vision for the merger isn't "well-defined," but he wants to give chancellors as much flexibility as possible without getting in their way.

"This is not easy," Cross said. "This is an uphill battle without question. But it's a hill we're climbing."

Regent Gerald Whitburn said a sense of uncertainty lingers over the merger and urged UW officials to proceed carefully but finish the work as efficiently as possible.

Regent Regina Milner acknowledged the process is evolving and "there needs to be a degree of patience in how this eventually rolls out."

Cross proposed the merger plan as a way to keep the two-year schools open in the face of declining enrollment. He said the merger would make transferring from two-year campuses to the four-year schools smoother and attract more students because they'll be able to earn associate degrees as well as take third- or fourth-year courses.

Under the plan, UW-Eau Claire will take over UW-Barron County; UW-Milwaukee will control UW-Washington County and UW-Waukesha; UW-Green Bay will control UW-Manitowoc, UW-Marinette and UW-Sheboygan; UW-Oshkosh will take over UW-Fond du Lac and UW-Fox Valley; UW-Platteville will run UW-Baraboo/Sauk County and UW-Richland; UW-Stevens Point will run UW-Marathon County and UW-Marshfield/Wood County; and UW-Whitewater will run UW-Rock County.

UW System administration will absorb UW-Extension's community outreach efforts and take over UW-Extension's other divisions, including public broadcasting.