Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Campus Merger or Bust

I can understand why Waukesha County exec Dan Vrakas is upset that the UWM and UW-Waukesha merger idea is losing steam. After all, if the two merge, the state will assume the entire cost, relieving Vrakas of the operations bill along with facility debt payments that the county currently pays for UW-Waukesha.

But it's a little more curious to see new Assembly Colleges and Universities chairperson Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) raising a stink over the sinking of the merger idea.

"There's got to be other information available," Nass exclaimed in response to a UW System report that showed a full campus merger would cost twice as much as the university center idea.

Maybe the WPRI is available. (Side-Note: Do you suppose the GOP has a special signal and red phone just like the Gotham City Police Department for these occasions?)

But, the fact is, there just isn't going to be a way to crunch the numbers so that transforming a 2-year campus into a 4-year campus -- whether or not it happens under the guise of a merger -- is cheaper than simply creating upper division instructional capabilities at UW-Waukesha, which is essentially the university center option.

Under the university center option, the state would assume the cost of upper-division and graduate programming, which includes the construction and maintenance of any new buildings used by the university center, but Waukesha County would continue to pick up the full facilities tab for existing infrastructure. That alone is a huge cost difference between the university center and merger options.

Add to that the fact that instituting a full 4-year campus and graduate school would involve hiring more full-time professors -- currently the UW Colleges rely heavily on part-time instructors -- along with developing a research and technology presence and bringing on board administrative staff to provide resources for students as they navigate through their programs and beyond.

In short, it's pretty obvious why the merger cost is more than the university center option. And it really isn't even all that close.

But there's more to the story for Nass. Last August he wrote an op-ed published at WisOpinion in which he laid out his vision for the UW System. One of the sections involved a proposal to merge all of the UW Colleges campuses with the Wisconsin Technical College System. Setting aside the problems involved in merging two major entities with clearly different missions, there seems to be inherent in the proposal a belief that mergers always equal less cost.

And insomuch that mergers accompany downsizing or even, to a lesser extent, just the maintenance of existing services, this belief in the cost saving potential of consolidation can be accurate. But there are few people -- and even fewer businesses -- who are interested in downsizing the public postsecondary options in the state; indeed, all of the options involving UWM and UW-Waukesha entail expansion, not merely consolidation.

I don't want to jump to any firm conclusions about Nass' reasoning for trying to get around the findings of a sound study, but the belief that you can always get more from less seems to be a logical culprit. To be sure, some of Nass' GOP colleagues on the Assembly Colleges and Universites Committee have expressed that exact belief regarding the merger idea.

State Rep. Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee) has said that not only should expanding UW-Waukesha into a 4-year campus not cost more than establishing a university center there, it should actually save the state money on the whole.

This isn't to say that important efficiencies can't be realized within an institution. In my job at UWM, in fact, I'm working on a number of projects aimed at doing more -- or at least as much -- administratively with less through automating previously manual processes.

But when you're talking about the entirety of an institution that's as service-centered and geographically-fixed as a university campus, there's just no way to do more at the same level of quality on less, and that goes for private institutions as well as public.

If proponents of the merger idea want to continue to push for it, that's certainly fine. I really don't have a strong opinion on it either way (my inclination is to start with the university center and work from there if more is needed). But they need to accept the fact that a full merger is among the most expensive options, not the least.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Nass assuming that Vrakas' predecessor's offer to sell the campus land and buildings to the state for a buck still stands?

It was a joke. A bad one. (But then, so was Vrakas' predecessor.)

That cost is significant, I suspect. It's beautiful acreage -- almost as large as UWM's acreage, as I recall -- and extraordinarily well-located. Just ask the neighbors who like the look of that wooded acreage the way it is -- or, actually, the way it was before the most recent addition of concrete to cause runoff problems.

There also are the costs of infrastructure around that land to handle more traffic through those neighbors' streets. Or perhaps the campus would be better in a different location, with the cost of more land and buildings, so that the country could sell off the current acreage to recoup its considerable share of the investment in that campus (as that's how the two-year campuses are done, unlike four-year campuses owned by the state -- which Mr. Nass surely ought to know).

March 14, 2007  

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