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UW System could focus more on collaboration, online learning

Higher education at Wisconsin’s public universities could significantly change in the near future.

UW System President Ray Cross presented three strategic recommendations focusing on online education and collaboration between campuses to the Board of Regents during a meeting Thursday afternoon. The recommendations deal with the financial stresses caused by COVID-19, which includes the UW System returning at least $47 million in state funding as a result of a 5% decrease in the state’s budget.

The recommendations are for the UW System schools, which include UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout, to refine their mission statements “to provide greater institutional distinctiveness and identity; to “consolidate and streamline administrative operational functions;” and to “create a unified, strategic online education delivery model.”

Cross recommended all UW System universities, except UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, review academic options by the end of this calendar year. Universities may have to focus on specific degree programs and collaborate with one another on certain courses.

The initial stages of the online education should begin this fall. Revised mission statements, if necessary, should be submitted to the Board of Regents by March 2021 and implemented beginning fall 2021. Streamlining administrative staff like IT and human resources should be completed by January 2022.

The recommendations will result in staff and program cuts and are on an aggressive timeline, but Cross believes they are vital to ensuring the long-term existence of the UW System.

“We must act as if our very future depends on it, because, well, it does,” Cross said. “We face some very critical and difficult choices, and while we cannot act in haste, we also must not delay.”

Cross expressed confidence in the universities’ ability to make changes but said some institutions could be facing bankruptcy a year from now if proper adjustments are not made.

Cross said no UW System schools are currently at risk of closing due to financial challenges, saying campuses already dealing with issues have responded quickly to COVID-19.

“No one is in imminent danger,” Cross said. “We’re not saying that, but it could get worse if action wasn’t taken quickly, and they did.”

Local universities are already feeling the financial impact of COVID-19.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said during a briefing Wednesday that the administration is preparing for a “partly cloudy” scenario involving revenue shortfalls of $10 million as of June 2020. Similarly, Doug Mell, UW-Stout director for communications, said the university has accounted for about $6 million in COVID-19-related expenses for the spring semester. Included in those figures are UW-Eau Claire returning about $2.5 million in state funding before July 1, and UW-Stout returning an estimated $1.8 million.

During the Wednesday briefing, Schmidt announced that 88 employees from seven areas will be taking consecutive-day furloughs, the majority of which will help reduce expenses in the current fiscal year. That is in addition to the 138 workers furloughed last month. The salary savings from furloughs will be more than $500,000.

UW-Stout announced that 69 employees were furloughed last month, and the university plans to furlough more workers on May 11. Neither UW-Eau Claire nor UW-Stout is planning layoffs at this time.

Schmidt was one of four chancellors who addressed regents during the meeting. Schmidt does not yet know if in-person classes will return this fall but said regional business leaders have mentioned that reopening campus is important to the local economy. Schmidt also said some students have mentioned taking a gap year if in-person classes do not return in the fall.

Schmidt hopes COVID-19 does not result in the UW System receiving less annual state funding.

“This pandemic threatens to do irreparable damage to more than our bottom line.” Schmidt said. “The true threat of this pandemic is not simply the initial financial loss, but how we respond in our recovery … We must do more than just survive the COVID-19 pandemic, and that will require investment.”

Other business

The board approved a temporary suspension of incoming freshmen being required to take the ACT and SAT for the next two academic years. COVID-19 has presented challenges to taking and submitting test scores, so the UW System will waive the requirements for 2020-21 and 2021-22, except at UW-Madison.

The board also approved about $3.8 million in additional funding for renovation of the UW-Eau Claire Karlgaard Residence Hall (formerly Towers North and Towers South, bringing total costs to around $42.8 million. The money will go toward modifying the building’s HVAC system to reduce condensation and clean the air, as there was trouble balancing the indoor humidity levels.

Justice Department dropping Flynn's Trump-Russia case

WASHINGTON — Cheered on by President Donald Trump, the Justice Department on Thursday said it is dropping the criminal case against his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, abandoning a prosecution that became a rallying cry for the president and his supporters in attacking the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation.

The action was a stunning reversal for one of the signature cases brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. It comes even though prosecutors for the past three years have maintained that Flynn lied to the FBI in a January 2017 interview about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

Flynn himself admitted as much, pleading guilty before later asking to withdraw the plea, and he became a key cooperator for Mueller as the special counsel investigated ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 political campaign.

Thursday’s action was swiftly embraced by Trump, who has relentlessly tweeted about the “outrageous” case and last week pronounced Flynn “exonerated,” and it is likely to energize supporters of the president who have taken up the retired Army lieutenant general as a cause.

But it will also add to Democratic complaints that Attorney General William Barr is excessively loyal to the president, and could be a distraction for a Justice Department that for months has sought to focus on crimes arising from the coronavirus.

Shortly before the filing was submitted, Brandon Van Grack, a Mueller team member and veteran prosecutor on the case, withdrew from the prosecution, a possible sign of disagreement with the decision.

After the Flynn announcement, Trump declared that his former aide had been “an innocent man” all along. He accused Obama administration officials of targeting Flynn and said, “I hope that a big price is going to be paid.” At one point he went further, saying of the effort investigating Flynn: “It’s treason. It’s treason.”

In court documents filed Thursday, the Justice Department said that after reviewing newly disclosed information and other materials, it agreed with Flynn’s lawyers that his interview with the FBI should never have taken place because his contacts with the Russian ambassador were “entirely appropriate.” The Flynn interview, the department said, was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”

The U.S. attorney reviewing the Flynn case, Jeff Jensen, formally recommended dropping it to Barr last week, the course of action vehemently and publicly recommended by Trump, who appointed Barr to head the Justice Department.

Barr has increasingly challenged the federal Trump-Russia investigation, saying in a television interview last month that it was started “without any basis.” In February, he overruled a decision by prosecutors in the case of Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and adviser, in favor of a more lenient recommended sentence.

Jensen said in a statement that he “briefed Attorney General Barr on my findings, advised him on these conclusions, and he agreed.”

The department’s action comes amid an internal review into the handling of the case and an aggressive effort by Flynn’s lawyers to challenge the basis for the prosecution. The lawyers cited newly disclosed FBI emails and notes last week to allege that Flynn was improperly trapped into lying when agents interviewed him at the White House days after Trump’s inauguration.

None of the documents appeared to undercut the central allegation that Flynn had misled the FBI.

Thursday’s filing was the latest dramatic development in a years-old case full of twists and turns. In recent months, Flynn’s attorneys have leveled a series of allegations about the FBI’s actions and asked to withdraw his guilty plea. A judge has rejected most of the claims and not ruled on others, including the bid to revoke the plea.

Earlier this year, Barr appointed Jensen, the top federal prosecutor in St. Louis to investigate the handling of Flynn’s case.

As part of that process, the Justice Department gave Flynn’s attorneys internal FBI correspondence, including one handwritten note from a senior FBI official that mapped out internal deliberations about the purpose of the Flynn interview: “What’s our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” the official wrote.

Other documents show the FBI had been prepared weeks before its interview to drop its investigation into whether he was acting at the direction of Russia. Later that month, though, as the White House insisted that Flynn had never discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, FBI officials grew more concerned by Flynn’s conversations with the diplomat and kept the investigation open to question him about that. Two agents visited him at the White House on Jan. 24, 2017.

But Thursday’s filing, signed by District of Columbia U.S. Attorney Tim Shea, says the FBI had no basis to continue investigating Flynn after failing to find he had done anything illegal. It says there was nothing on his Russia calls “to indicate an inappropriate relationship between Mr. Flynn and a foreign power.” The department also contends Flynn’s answers during the interview were equivocal and indirect, rather than false, and weren’t relevant to the underlying investigation into whether the Trump campaign and Russia were illegally coordinating.

The memo also cites what it describes as internal uncertainty within the FBI over whether Flynn had lied, noting that the agents who interviewed him reported that he had a “very sure demeanor” and that-then FBI Director James Comey had said it was a “close” call.

Democratic members of Congress lambasted Thursday’s action, as did former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who said in a statement the FBI was obligated to interview Flynn “to better understand why he was talking to Russian officials.” Flynn’s lies, McCabe said, “added to our concerns about his relationship with the Russian government.”

Flynn pleaded guilty, among the first of the president’s aides to admit guilt in Mueller’s investigation. He acknowledged that he lied about his conversations with Kislyak, in which he encouraged Russia not to escalate tensions with the U.S. over sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for election interference.

He provided such extensive cooperation that prosecutors said he was entitled to a sentence of probation instead of prison.

However, his sentencing hearing was abruptly cut short after Flynn, facing a stern rebuke from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, asked to be able to continue cooperating and earn credit toward a more lenient sentence.

His then-attorneys pointedly noted in their sentencing memo that the FBI had not warned him that it was against the law to lie when they interviewed him.

He later hired new attorneys, including conservative commentator Sidney Powell, who have taken a far more confrontational stance to the government. The lawyers accused prosecutors of withholding documents and evidence they said was favorable to the case and have repeatedly noted that one of the two agents who interviewed Flynn was fired for having sent derogatory text messages about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Republicans push for regional openings

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Republican lawmakers, including those in the Chippewa Valley, believe Wisconsin needs to take a regional approach to opening the state back up.

“A lot of Wisconsinites have made tremendous sacrifices in the name of flattening the curve and saving our health care system from being overwhelmed, and for a large part we have succeeded in just doing that,” said Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer. “But now we have to begin to discuss our economic recovery.”

Local business owners joined Summerfield and his Republican colleagues Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, and Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, at Loopy’s Grill and Saloon in Chippewa Falls on Thursday to express support for opening the state economy based on a regional plan. Republican lawmakers held similar press conferences in Wausau and Appleton the same day.

Bill “Loopy” Kleich has been the owner of Loopy’s Grill and Saloon for 23 years and said his sales were down 70 percent in April and could drop by 80 percent or more without summer business. Fixed expenses have not stopped, he said, as the business must continue to pay for insurance, utilities and taxes.

“Now is the time to open,” Kleich said. “We can do this slowly and safely with proper sanitizing, social distancing and common sense just as other businesses have been doing since the start.”

The state’s safer-at-home order was intended to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases so medical facilities don’t get overwhelmed and that goal has been achieved locally, he said. Thousands of people have entered businesses such as Kwik Trip, Walmart and Menards without seeing a catastrophic increase in positive cases.

“It’s hard for many of us to comprehend what makes these businesses any safer or more important than ours,” Kleich said. “We must remember that all businesses are essential and all employees’ jobs are essential to feeding, housing and caring for their families.”

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he worried that loosening restrictions meant to curb the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus in some parts of the state could lead to regional outbreaks. But he admitted that his next move will depend on how the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules in a case brought by Republicans challenging the authority of his health secretary to issue orders closing businesses.

Evers, speaking earlier on WTMJ radio, wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reopening some less affected parts of the state sooner than others, but he worried about the potential for an outbreak.

“I never say never in this situation,” Evers said of regionalization. “There may be cases where we do it. I think we can do a lot of things, reopening, that are statewide and impact all counties at the same time.”

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, said there’s not a lot of logic involved with a regional reopening plan. If businesses open in one area of the state, he said, people from areas with higher levels of cases would travel to the open regions and spread the disease.

“It’s just pure illogical to think that you should open some place but not others,” Smith said. “Unless you’re closing off the roads or building a wall to keep others out, it’s just not possible.”

Sara Nelson, co-owner of Shear Style in Bloomer, said she’s willing to take whatever steps necessary to reopen. People could wait in their cars instead of a waiting room, she said. Work stations are already at least six feet apart and the salon has cleaning protocols.

“This is going to be our norm and I would love to just get back in and figure out our new norm,” she said. “There is so much that we could do to make baby steps to getting back to work.”

River Country Cooperative CEO Bruce Mlsna said convenience store revenues are down between 25 and 40 percent, while hospitality at its hotel is down 75 percent in April. Half of River Country’s operation is based on agriculture, and farmers have been hit by lower consumer consumption has led to price drops for milk, grains and beef when they need the revenue during planting season for seed and fertilizer inputs.

Pronschinske said a regional approach is a smart way for the state to get back to normal. Almost 90 percent of those who contact Pronschinske’s office want the state to open up, he said. Taking small steps forward can be done safely as small communities.

“If you look at the data, we don’t have the issues that we have in some other areas of the state, here in western Wisconsin,” he said, “and I believe that’s because we’re responsible and we want to move forward and be safe.”

Bernier said Evers’ Badger Bounce Back Plan has the state “bouncing in place” without moving forward. There needs to be a realistic plan that would allow the state to open up, she said, as areas with few cases can be a pilot for how the rest of the state can open.

People can be responsible for their decisions and risk, Bernier said.

“(Evers) needs to recognize that these people who are trying to run a business — I think we can’t state it strong enough — this is their life, this is their livelihood, they’re feeding their families,” she said.

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said the decision is a difficult one.

She favors the statewide approach presented by the governor and feels many areas of the state haven’t conducted enough tests to make sure those areas are safe. Bringing the National Guard in for mass testing this week and next in under-tested counties will help gain a clearer picture.

With business owners seeing their life’s work decline, it’s a terrible situation, she said, but it’s also important that employees are being protected.

“It’s a delicate balance but a business can’t exist without customers, and workers and the average person can’t exist without a place to work,” Emerson said. “We have to meet the needs of both of them, but right now we don’t necessarily have data in all parts of the state.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.