By Tom Still

OSHKOSH, Wis. — It doesn’t feel like a campus in crisis, nor is it one, but the UW-Oshkosh is an example of what lies in store for much of the UW System unless long-term financial fixes are found.

Saying he wanted to confront the “new reality” of an anticipated $18-million budget deficit “head-on,” Chancellor Andy Leavitt announced this month there will be layoffs, furloughs and cuts in other operating expenses on campus over the coming year. Details depend on factors that include final enrollment figures and retirements, but the message was clear: A fiscal downsizing of Wisconsin’s third-largest public university is underway.

During a recent campus visit, however, I didn’t find anyone hanging black crepe over the doors. In fact, the feeling was somewhat the opposite. There was a sense that “UWO,” as its often called, is taking necessary albeit painful steps to retain its core educational missions.

The campus was the site of the annual WiSys SPARK Symposium, which is a gathering of students and faculty from UW System campuses — mainly from schools such as Oshkosh that don’t produce doctoral students but which engage in undergraduate and graduate research.

Students delivered short pitches on topics ranging from eradicating zebra mussels to using whey to produce biodegradable packaging. Faculty talked about their work in animal agriculture, polymer science and other disciplines that can transfer into the broader economy. There was a related gathering of people from across Wisconsin to work on strategies tied to a National Science Foundation grant related to sustainable agriculture. WiSys landed the grant (one of only 44 nationally) along with partners who recognize Wisconsin’s potential to be a leader.

In short, even during the break before classes begin, the Oshkosh campus was still humming. It underscored what Leavitt said recently in announcing the cuts: “We will continue to be that place of teaching, learning, research and service our community, our region and the state needs, but we must operate differently than we have in the past.”

Given current trends across the UW System, as well as other public and private colleges, UW-Oshkosh likely will not be alone in belt-tightening.

Factors ranging from declining enrollments and simple demographics to reduced state support and tuition freezes over the past decade have hit most UW System schools to one degree or another. In fact, the projected deficit on 10 of the 13 four-year campuses is expected to reach $60 million by mid-2024. Each campus has a different level of funding in its reserves.

Over the longer term, no campus can cut its way to prosperity. What’s needed, sooner than later, is a serious discussion about how much higher education infrastructure can Wisconsin afford. In addition to the UW System’s 13 four-year campuses, there are an equal number of two-year campuses, some of which are losing enrollment. The state also has 16 Technical College System districts with campuses on multiple sites within each district.

Closing any campus location isn’t easy, especially in places that value what a campus brings to the community. As was recently the case with UW-Richland Center, for example, community members don’t often know if a campus is struggling financially.

The “head-on” approach at UW-Oshkosh is part of the answer. Instead of pretending all is well, Leavitt did what many organizations and businesses occasionally do, which is cut costs where possible without harming the core. If people living in Oshkosh and the larger Fox Valley region didn’t realize the severity of the problem before, they probably do now.

Business, government and higher education itself must be a part of forging a long-term solution. It may include downsizing but it need not mean sacrificing quality. Less is sometimes more.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at