Thompson: Lawmakers Warned Against Tuition Increases In UW Budget

University of Wisconsin System interim President Tommy Thompson says Republican leaders in the state Legislature warned him not to include any tuition increases in his first budget request or it wouldn’t “go anywhere.” 

During a panel discussion Monday hosted by the nonpartisan, research organization Wisconsin Policy Forum, Thompson was joined by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone. 

The discussion centered on lagging state support for the UW System. In December, WPF released a study showing state and local tax appropriations in Wisconsin fell from $10,333 per student to $6,846 per student, which is well below the national average. 

Each of the panelists pointed to an eight-year tuition freeze imposed by state lawmakers in 2013 as a major source of financial stress at the state’s universities. Blank noted tuition at UW-Madison is around $3,000 less than peer institutions in Minnesota and Illinois. And while tuition is still frozen at 2013 levels in Wisconsin, the costs of running a university have risen. 

When Thompson was asked whether it’s time to consider ending the near decade-long tuition freeze at the state’s four-year universities, he said GOP leaders in the Legislature warned doing so would sink the UW budget.

“I have been told in no uncertain terms by the leadership of the Legislature that if I come in with a tuition increase, the budget is not going to go anywhere,” said Thompson. “So, I’ve got to balance a tuition increase proposal with getting the rest of the budget through.”

Thompson said “in a very altruistic society,” he wouldn’t be making the same argument. He pointed to recent budget cuts ordered by Gov. Tony Evers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as causing pain for the UW System. 

“And now I cannot afford to come back out of this budget without winning,” said Thompson. “And if I have been told that if I come in this way, I’m going to lose, I’ve got to take that into consideration. So, right now, I think the tuition increase is going to be a battle for another day.”

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Thompson is seeking a $96 million increase in state revenue for the UW System. Part of that would go toward creating a grant program at state colleges offering free tuition to some students from low-income families.

The budget, approved by the UW Board of Regents last August, also seeks authority from legislators to allow the system to borrow up to $1 billion to help address losses due to COVID-19. 

During the Policy Forum discussion, Thompson and Blank said the UW System and UW-Madison, unlike peers throughout the U.S., are unable to unilaterally borrow money to address emergency situations. 

“And look at my athletic department, which is financially devastated this year,” said Blank. “In the absence of borrowing, I could not do other things which I’m trying desperately to do.” 

Blank said if she didn’t move money from other initiatives, the alternative would have been mass layoffs, including coaches, followed by trying to rebuild the athletic programs next year. 

The Big Ten football conference offered loans to universities hit by COVID-19-related losses, said Blank. But she said UW-Madison was the only institution to formally request such a loan because other universities had already secured bonds to help in the short term. 

“I wanted the Big Ten to borrow to us and the Big Ten just said, ‘Look, we’re not going to do it for one school,’ said Blank. “I mean, this is just insane. And we need modern financial tools to run these complex organizations.”

In June, just before Thompson took over as interim UW System president, outgoing President Ray Cross unsuccessfully urged Evers and Republican legislative leaders to call a special session to consider granting the bonding authority to the state’s colleges and universities. At the time, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and then-Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they would discuss the idea with members, though Fitzgerald also mentioned past concerns with UW financial management.