Hopes and fears over merger at UW-Marinette

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MARINETTE, Wis. (WBAY) - University of Wisconsin system regents approve a plan to merge the system's two-year schools with its four-year campuses Thursday. It's a story we've been closely following since news of this proposed merger broke early October.

There are thirteen two-year UW schools in Wisconsin. Under the plan, they will be transformed into regional branches of seven four-year colleges. Students could still earn associate degrees, but they would bear the name of the four-year school.

The system's president proposed the plan as a way of bolstering declining enrollment at the two-year schools and keep them open. The plan would take effect next July.

On Wednesday, Action 2 News reported the concerns coming from UW-Fox Valley students, upset their professors and local administrators were not consulted ahead of Friday’s vote.

UW-Marinette who’ve spent many decades teaching there gave us a history of how the enrollment dip happened.

The aging population is part of the decline in enrollment—down nearly 50 percent since 2009. Enrollment is historically high when the economy is bad, and low when the economy is doing well and students can find full-time work directly after high school.

However, decisions from the top also had an impact during that time. The admissions office was stripped years ago of any recruiters who used to attract kids in area high schools—Marinette, Peshtigo, Gillett, and Oconto. Academic advisors for students in specific majors have also been canned—along with leadership: like a dean, associate dean, and other staff positions considered important to the campus.

For instance, two years ago, there were two full-time IT workers working here on the hundreds of computers at UW Marinette's campus. And now, they have none. Instead, UW Madison's IT workers come at odd hours in order to fix technology issues.

Faculty hope the merger means better support and the opportunity to teach juniors and seniors—that’s the best case scenario, they said.

We spoke at length with several employed by UW-Marinette who are not permitted to speak with us on camera. Their worst fears are needing to commute to and from Green Bay, as well as predicting a decision to raise college tuition to the same as a four year school—and eventually, even try to close the campus if Green Bay's chancellor finds it's not profitable. With the future uncertain, the community is bracing for change.

"You can tell from the time the report first came out [professors and staff] all said, ‘We don't really know anything, but we are concerned,’” said Connor Nelson, a UW Marinette student. “For a lot of us here, we don't want to drive to Green Bay. That's why we came here. For people in the future, there are kids that can't afford to go to four year schools right away. They come here, they get their two years in, and they get a job."