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Chancellor Richard H. Wells

Over the past few weeks, the Governor’s Budget Repair Bill and his Biennial Budget proposal have generated considerable discussion about the changes necessary to propel the UW System and its campuses forward. This discussion has often focused on the long-range, or what I like to call the “forever.” The New Badger Partnership and the Wisconsin Idea Partnership proposals are both on the table, sparking a national conversation about whether it is better to spin off our UW Madison flagship as a public authority with greater autonomy or to retain the present unified UW System structure and pursue greater flexibilities for all our campuses. This vital debate has forced us to consider how high-quality higher education can remain sustainable, inclusive and affordable in a future laden with budgetary challenges.

Our concentration on the “forever” debate cannot, however, overshadow the need for creative solutions to the challenges facing us in the “for now.”  We need two specific tools to face the current crisis: increased operational and management flexibilities on the one hand, and on the other, the ability to use additional state-mandated employee compensation reductions to help meet our campus’s $9.8 million budget shortfall for the 2011-13 biennium.

The students, faculty and staff at UW Oshkosh have their academic futures and livelihoods hanging in the balance, especially since the projected cut has come immediately on the heels of significant budget reductions in the previous biennium.

We were able to address the $14 million 2009-2011 budget shortfall, which also included employee compensation reductions, through collaborative and innovative campus-wide planning. If we are to successfully address the new cuts and protect and enhance the excellence, inclusiveness and affordability of our university, UW Oshkosh will require the operational and management flexibilities that my UW System counterparts and I have requested of the Governor and Legislature for the entire fleet.

Flexibilities and results

Ours is one of the most overregulated higher educational systems in the country. The flexibilities we seek will give campuses a greater ability to control their own energy budgets, streamline hiring processes and manage construction projects autonomously. They will give us the power to better apply millions of dollars for the long term. A preliminary analysis by Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Thomas Sonnleitner shows that giving UW Oshkosh these flexibilities would conservatively lead to $2.5 million in savings per year. For every $1 million that can be saved and reallocated at UW Oshkosh, 5,000 more classroom seats can be created for our students. The demand is here. With more than 13,600 students, UW Oshkosh is the state’s third-largest and second-fastest growing campus.

But there is another tool that will help UW Oshkosh meet its budget shortfall. The good news is that this budgeting flexibility already exists, and the Governor and Legislature could empower us with it immediately in the interest of the “for now.”

This tool will help UW Oshkosh and its fellow UW System fleet campuses by addressing a fundamental inconsistency in how we are allowed to use employee compensation reductions to minimize our local share of the historic shortfall.

UW Oshkosh is neither looking for nor expecting an exemption from cuts or to be spared from the pain that all state entities will feel. Our university community understands that everyone must pay a fair share as we confront our tremendous budget challenge. So, let me be clear: We are not asking to be treated differently from the school districts, cities and counties in the budget challenges ahead. Rather, we are asking to be treated in a similar manner.

School district, city and county employees are facing compensation reductions just as UW System employees are. However, the former are able to apply the savings resulting from their compensation reductions directly to their local budget shortfalls. The UW campuses are not afforded the same ability. School districts will use employee take home pay reductions to offset an 8 percent state funding cut. UW Oshkosh and its sister campuses, which have not been given that tool yet, are facing an 11 percent state funding cut.

Consistency in reaching solutions

Were the budget to pass as it stands now, the $5 million realized in take-home pay reductions of UW Oshkosh faculty and staff would be used to help the state of Wisconsin close its overall $3.6 billion budget deficit. It would not be applied locally to reduce UW Oshkosh share of the UW System biennial shortfall.

Were the budget-trimming tools consistent, the $9.8 million shortfall we face would fall to $4.8 million. It would still leave UW Oshkosh with a burden, but it would minimize the difficulty of preserving high-impact educational programs, maintaining modest tuition increases and better protecting classroom excellence.

Given the same budget flexibility of local governments and school districts, UW Oshkosh could reallocate funding as a result of compensation decreases to help protect student advising and counseling and career services from further erosion. We could fortify the variety and number of courses necessary to ensure our students achieve a timely graduation. We could contain tuition increases to the 5.5 percent rate each year of the budget proposal. We could protect our successful Student Titan Employment Program (STEP). We could soften the negative impact on already overstrained equipment and operational budgets. Just as important, we could avoid layoffs and safeguard the critical growth and development opportunities our faculty and staff need to keep pace with trends and technological changes that are revolutionizing classrooms and campuses around the world.

There are other benefits, as well. By granting UW Oshkosh this budget-trimming flexibility, the Governor and Legislature would no longer expect our dedicated workforce, ready to sacrifice average take-home pay reductions of 8.6 percent, to forgo credit for that sacrifice. There would be a counter to the low morale on campus by allowing UW Oshkosh’s world-class faculty and staff to channel their compensation reductions toward budget solutions on the ground, here. Having studied the sociological impact of disasters, I know the first thing that helps people overcome hardships they had little to no part in causing is to give them some control, to give them the tools to dig themselves out and see some good come from what they have endured.

It is not unreasonable, and it only seems fair, that as Wisconsin public employees are asked to roll up their shirt sleeves and help close the state’s biennial budget deficit, they all be given the equal right to see some benefit from their sacrifice in their own back yard.

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