UW-Barron County faculty and staff were caught off guard last fall when it was announced that the Rice Lake campus might become part of UW-Eau Claire.
They feared for their job security, their students and the future of their campus’s mission to serve virtually all people in the region seeking higher education.
“It was a shock,” said Troy Kozma, an associate professor of philosophy at UW-Barron County since 2006. “We could see the writing on the wall in terms of budget cuts and enrollment declines, but it still sort of blindsided us.”
Nine months later — after dozens of meetings involving about 100 people trying to iron out details of what some initially called an “arranged marriage” — emotions have settled down, fears have been allayed and the consensus appears to be that the merger will be a positive development for both campuses.
After Friday’s formal approval by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the restructuring through which all UW System two-year colleges are integrating with four-year universities across the state becomes official today.
That means the former UW-Barron County is now a branch campus of UW-Eau Claire and officially known as the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — Barron County.
“We’re still here. We’re still functioning. We’re just operating under a new name,” said Brittany Nielsen, administrator at the Rice Lake campus.
Today kicks off the first day of Phase 1 of the restructuring, which was approved by the UW System Board of Regents in November. During this phase, student applications and financial aid will continue to be administered by the two-year campuses, and many functions — primarily those focusing on things like human resources, information technology and procurement — will continue to be provided centrally to ensure continuity of operations during the 2018-19 school year.
Plans call for the four-year institutions to take on operational planning and provide centralized services for the two-year campuses in Phase 2, which begins next July. The campuses eventually will merge their course catalogs and align their curriculum.
UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt, now the leader of both campuses, predicted the merger will make the Eau Claire and Rice Lake institutions stronger and ultimately lead to higher combined enrollment.
“We’re greater than the sum of our parts,” he said.
Officials from both institutions promise that students and staff will notice few changes, other than the name of the Rice Lake campus, when classes resume this fall. Nielsen predicted that many people will refer to the institution as simply UWECBC instead of by its new formal name.
One immediately apparent change will be in the school’s colors and mascot. UW-Barron County will drop its red and white and adopt UW-Eau Claire’s colors of blue and gold, and Barron County students and staff now be forced to join their Eau Claire colleagues in answering the age-old question about their new mascot: What exactly is a Blugold?
Regents President John Behling, of Eau Claire, said he has received mostly positive feedback about the merger, especially since the chancellors of the four-year campuses began meeting the students, staff and community members connected with their new partner institutions.
“I think the chancellors have kind of been the superstars, as they’ve been getting into the smaller communities and explaining why this is a good thing and a better model that what we had,” Behling said.
The decision was necessitated by declining enrollments of up to 50 percent at some of the two-year colleges in the system, with projections showing that some of those colleges would fail to meet cash flow in less than three years, creating a realistic threat of shutting down campuses, he said.
“It was clear we had to do something,” Behling said. “Nobody wants to close a campus, so we thought the next best option was to combine campuses. I’m hopeful this is the right solution.”
Ryan Ring, a student representative on the Board of Regents from UW-Eau Claire, said he understood the initial trepidation about the merger proposal and is pleased to see much of that anxiety has faded away as questions have been answered and rapid action task forces have moved forward with such issues as shared governance and collaborating on curriculum.
“As we get closer to the start date of July 1,” Ring said last week, “I’ve been hearing nothing but positive things about the restructuring. Overall, I think it’s going to be a real positive for the students and the system.”
In addition to changing the UW System’s 13 two-year colleges into regional branches of seven of the system’s 13 four-year universities, the restructuring calls for UW-Madison to administer Broadcasting and Media Innovation (including Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio), Cooperative Extension, UW Conference Centers and the Department of Labor Education, all formerly part of UW-Extension.
Despite the relatively short timeline for the restructuring, UW-Barron County and UW-Eau Claire worked collaboratively and sought ample feedback to ensure the best decisions were made for the future of both campuses, Nielsen said.
“Together, we have worked hand in hand with faculty, staff, students and the community and have stayed true to our guiding principle of placing students first in all of our decisions,” Nielsen said.
A major reason that faculty and staff on the Rice Lake campus have warmed to the idea of becoming a branch campus is that Schmidt and other UW-Eau Claire officials have pledged to maintain the separate missions of the two campuses. UW-Eau Claire will continue to be selective in admitting students, while the Barron County campus will maintain its open access philosophy in which about 99 percent of students who apply are admitted.
“The chancellor has been adamant that he wants to maintain the mission of UW-Barron County, and that’s been reassuring,” Kozma said. “It’s a different student set, so I’m really glad we’re remaining focused on that.”
That commitment should ensure the Rice Lake campus will continue to meet the needs of students and employers in northwestern Wisconsin, said Eric Kasper, an associate professor of political science at UW-Eau Claire who previously taught at UW-Barron County and continues to live in Rice Lake.
The combination makes sense, he said, because both campuses focus on offering a broad-based liberal arts education.
Nielsen said University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — Barron County will continue to offer cheaper tuition, athletics, clubs and the smaller class sizes that give it a family feel.
“We said early on we weren’t going to homogenize the two schools,” Schmidt said. “We intend to still have both missions be distinctive.”
Schmidt said he was pleased to see UW System President Ray Cross propose the restructuring in October despite giving the concept the cold shoulder when Schmidt initially suggested it in 2015, when system officials sought ideas to deal with major proposed budget cuts.
In response to Schmidt’s idea to assign each of the 13 two-year UW colleges to a partner four-year campus and merge administrative and other duties, Cross said in an email to top system deputies, “Incredible logic!! I find this most troubling!!! I thought Jim was a bit more thoughtful than this,” according to a report in the Wisconsin State Journal, which obtained the emails.
“I give President Cross and the regents credit for taking this step,” Schmidt said last week. “I think it will help the enrollment problem faced by the colleges.”
Schmidt, who was involved with two similar system mergers in Minnesota before coming to UW-Eau Claire, maintained he doesn’t anticipate any job losses at the Rice Lake branch.
While Schmidt hopes to build a strong pipeline for students at the Barron County campus to transfer to UW-Eau Claire, he said other universities are welcome to recruit at the Barron County campus too. Roughly 25 percent of UW-Barron County students transferring to UW System universities in 2015-16 chose UW-Stout in Menomonie.
Though Kozma acknowledged many details still must be worked out, he said the union should benefit the Rice Lake campus by giving students and faculty access to the resources of a much larger university. UW-Barron County had about 500 students and 23 instructors in 2017-18, compared with nearly 11,000 students and more than 500 faculty and instructional staff members at UW-Eau Claire.
Meanwhile, UW-Eau Claire officials can learn from the way the Barron County branch serves its higher percentage of nontraditional students and special populations such as Somali immigrants and members of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Chippewa Indians, Schmidt said.
“This is good for the people of Wisconsin,”Schmidt said. “It’s the best option for these two-year colleges to continue to be viable for their communities.”
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