UW chancellor to staff: ‘I’m sorry’ layoffs are coming

Standing room-only crowd attended first budget forum

A large, standing room-only UW-Madison faculty and staff audience heard Chancellor Rebecca Blank apologize late Wednesday night as she warned layoffs under Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal were unavoidable and could come as early as April.

‘I just want to say how sorry I am. Because some of the people in this room are going to be impacted by cuts,” Blank said to more than 350 mostly night shift custodians in attendance.  “I know how hard you work for this university and this state.”

“I’m not announcing mass layoffs,” Blank clarified later in the meeting. “The number will be relatively small, and we will get through this.”

Under Walker’s proposal, the UW System faces a $300 million budget reduction over the next two years.  Blank says if the proposal remains unchanged, the Madison campus’s portion would be $60 million per year.  However, with additional budget cuts also coming, the chancellor says UW-Madison administrators must actually be prepared to cut $90 million by July 1, when the university’s new fiscal year starts.

“To give you a sense of the size of $90 million, if I eliminated the five smallest schools here at the university, simply, completely shut down and gave no more money to and closed the schools of business, law, nursing, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine, we would not quite fill the hole for that $90 million,” Blank said.  “We’re not going to do that. But it’s a sense of what the magnitude of these cuts are .”

While the size of the cuts would vary, Blank said all campus units can expect that number to be around 6 percent. Blank explained when layoffs come, they will be based on an employee’s seniority, which sparked loud groans from the crowd.

“How can that be?” an upset audience member asked.

The chancellor said even though employees are no longer union members, the university must still follow union rules until July 1.  After that date, if layoffs come, while seniority will still be a significant factor, Blank says it will matter less.

“I’ve been trying to send message these budget cuts are just too big,” Blank said. “But there will be cuts.”

The university, according to Blank, has not instituted a hiring freeze.  Instead, with “deep caution” to administrators, she is strongly advising only essential staff be hired.

Blank said she is hopeful the university will be able to slightly moderate the deficit’s impact through ideas like increasing the number of out-of-state students admitted to the university.  Unlike in-state students, who are currently protected by a tuition freeze, Blank said the university plans on raising all out-of-state student tuition.

“The tuition freeze for undergraduate in-state students mean our ability to fill these cuts with revenue is limited,” Blank said.  “We’re going to do some things with out-of-state tuition, and some other things. But it is limited.”

Under state rules, Blank said laid off employees would receive a benefits package. However, she emphasized the process is very early and only knows at this point that the university’s coming budget picture is bleak.

“And we won’t know the final outcome until late May, early June. So this is a long process of conversation,” Blank said.