The University of Wisconsin's two-year colleges lost two-thirds of their deans to budget cuts. None of the 13 feeder schools will close. But will their mission change?

Harry Muir: restructured out of his job as UW-Waukesha dean. Photo by Max Thomsen.

Harry Muir: restructured out of his job as UW-Waukesha dean. Photo by Max Thomsen.

Harry Muir stops midsentence and asks to hit the rewind button. What he just said – “It’s an initiative of moving into the Milwaukee area” – didn’t come out quite right.

“It can scare some people,” he says with a laugh, of the phrase “moving in.”

Muir was describing his new job. Come January, he’ll be focusing on urban Milwaukee, trying to start new internships and build academic programs that will benefit the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

The Colleges are 13 tiny specks on the higher-education map in Wisconsin, beloved by the people who work there and the roughly 14,000 students who go there, but little-known or understood beyond their campuses, which mostly reside in small- and medium-sized cities, in addition to one online campus.

They serve primarily freshmen and sophomores, and are the ultimate access institutions, where students either unprepared for the academic rigors of a four-year campus or turned off by the big U experience can get their first two years of school at a fraction of the cost before transferring. Virtually every applicant is accepted. Adults – “nontraditional students” in higher-ed jargon – make up nearly a third of students.

And data show they graduate at higher rates from the four-year universities than students who transfer in from technical colleges or other four-year campuses.

In an early-October interview, Muir can be forgiven for not being on top of his mental game. It’s his first Monday at work knowing he will no longer have his current job as dean and CEO of the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, the largest of those two-year colleges.

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The roomy-yet-modest office he sits in will no longer be his. The campus under his charge since 2011 will now be overseen by Jackie Joseph-Silverstein, the current dean at UW-Sheboygan, who will now divide her time as a new regional dean/CEO for three campuses: Waukesha, Sheboygan and Washington County in West Bend.

Muir had thrown his hat in the ring for the new regional job. If he’s bitter about not getting it, he’s doing a great job of masking it.

“She’s super, and I know that’s what I’m supposed to say,” he says of Joseph-Silverstein, “but she’s super. I’m going to really enjoy working with her.”

Muir has won praise for his efforts building bridges from campus to community and business groups at Waukesha, as well as at a previous job with a community college in Arizona. He calls the opportunity to dedicate his time to that cause in Milwaukee, which is mostly unserved by the UW two-year colleges, exciting.

Muir and Joseph-Silverstein are two of the first dominoes to fall in what will be a massive restructuring of the colleges. No campuses will close, and students may not notice much of a difference in the classroom. But in other areas, changes will be substantial.

Most administrative jobs will be regionalized. Many other jobs – in financial aid, IT, human resources, libraries, veterans’ services and admissions – will go away, be consolidated regionally or move from the campuses to the central office in Madison.

All told, 83 jobs will disappear, representing about 10 percent of the entire workforce at the statewide two-year colleges. Nearly a third of its administrative jobs will disappear.

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The upheaval comes in response to a consultant’s report about how to manage the network of schools. It was commissioned by Ray Cross, formerly the chancellor of UW Colleges and UW-Extension. In 2014, Cross got a promotion to his current job as president of the entire UW System.

The timing of implementing the consultant’s recommendations got turbo-charged by Gov. Scott Walker’s historic $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System that was approved by the Legislature for the 2015-2017 budget cycle. It came with a further two-year freeze on tuition for in-state undergraduates, cutting off a possible revenue bump for the Colleges, which draw almost exclusively from Wisconsin.

Whereas most of UW’s four-year campuses were able to cushion the cuts by raising tuition on out-of-state students, freezing open jobs, offering buyouts to longtime staffers and dipping into reserve funds, the Colleges had few options beyond severe cuts to plug a gaping $5.6 million budget hole. And they decided to cut from the top.

“It makes more sense to cut administrators,” Muir says. “They have the largest salaries.”

Muir admits he’s one of the lucky ones. He won’t be on the street but in a newly created job advising Colleges Chancellor Cathy Sandeen on the urban centers of Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine.

“The time is now to ‘turn up the dial’ on these efforts, to direct renewed attention to a vital part of our state,” Sandeen wrote in an internal email announcing Muir’s new job.

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‘Hard Lessons’ appears in the December 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the December issue on newsstands Nov. 30.

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