By M.D. Kittle at Watchdog.org
MADISON, WI. – Charging that there has been a “pattern of disingenuous behavior” from University of Wisconsin System officials following an audit that found the system had hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Friday pledged the Legislature will freeze university tuition in Wisconsin.
“This is an issue that deserves further examination,” the Rochester Republican said in a statement. “At a minimum I can assure parents and students that we will freeze tuition for two years across the UW System.”
Vos pledged an investigation of the UW System’s finances that will “ensure that every aspect of Wisconsin government is responsible to the people.”
Republican lawmakers want answers in the University of Wisconsin System surplus scandal, with Speaker Robin Vos calling on freezing tuition for two years.
Last week, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau released a report detailing a $1.05 billion balance in UW System reserve accounts. That includes the system’s tuition balance of $414.1 million, compared to a tuition balance of $212.8 million on June 30, 2009.
Much of those funds are restricted regarding how they can be used.
UW System President Kevin Reilly said just $207 million in the system’s cash balances were uncommitted or unrestricted.
Still, a chorus of Republican lawmakers has blasted Reilly and the system officials for sitting on a hefty reserve while university students in the Badger State have seen tuition soar.
Between 2002 and 2012, tuition climbed 134 percent for UW System students, the heftiest hike among Big Ten university systems, Vos said in his statement.
“At a time when student loan debt is soaring, the UW System did their students a disservice by not being more responsible with the tuition dollars they had and asking for more,” the speaker said.
Vos and other lawmakers have criticized Reilly for statements made during a hearing this week, calling his comments about the reserve disingenuous.
“On one hand, President Reilly testified (this week) that they didn’t know the balances existed, and yet they had a plan in place to spend it. That’s disrespectful to the students whose tuition was repeatedly raised while the system was sitting on big reserves,” Vos said.
At the hearing, Reilly defended the balance, in total about a 25 percent reserve ratio, saying it was in line with other public universities. He conceded the university didn’t have a policy for appropriate reserve balances.
“We need to look out for the long-term, what is the health of the university going to be for that student,” Reilly said. “We need to have a sufficient reserve so that we can say to that student, Four years from now, ‘You’ll be getting a quality education here.’
“I think we could have and should have been more transparent about this,” Reilly said. “What we have not done is drilled down below that level and say, ‘Here’s where money lies on all the campuses.’ I think with where these balances have gotten to, we should.”
Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, who has become quite accustomed to sending public officials scathing letters, released a sneering missive to Reilly, peppering the system president with a plethora of unanswered questions.
“Did the Board of Regents know of the huge surplus when it approved the 5.5 percent tuition increase in each of the last two years? If so, when, where and how did that vote take place, and how did each of the Regents vote?” Ellis begins his written interrogation.
“You are probably aware that the concealment of these funds has raised serious questions as to the governance and oversight of the University of Wisconsin System,” Ellis writes. “Your answers to these questions will help shed light on who is running the University of Wisconsin – the PhDs in Van Hise Hall overlooking Madison, or the taxpayer’s (sic) representatives on the Board of Regents.”
The senator poked at Reilly’s pay, north of $400,000 a year, saying that because the system president is in the upper tier of income in Wisconsin, a 5.5 percent tuition increase wouldn’t significantly his his bottom line.
“However, I remind you that students and families have experienced hardship and gone into debt because of skyrocketing tuition at UW,” Ellis’ letter asserts.
Some Democrats have sprung to the defense of Reilly and the system.
State Rep. Fred Clark of Sauk City dismissed the news value of the system’s bolstered fund balance, asserting that berating a higher education system that has “managed to maintain a reasonable level of cash reserves through difficult times was as illogical as it was counter-productive.”
“If any aspect of this story is embarrassing it has been watching legislators try to outdo themselves in being outraged and publically (Sic) hurling offensive comments at UW leaders – comments that will ultimately tarnish the brand of one of our most important state institutions,” Clark said in a statement this week.
In a briefing, Vos pledged that the Republican-controlled legislature will “take a serious look at the needs of the universities to make sure that students are put first.”
“To do that, we’re going to take a comprehensive look at the UW System’s finances, and examine some reforms to bring about more accountability and transparency,” Vos said.
UW System spokesman David Giroux said he had not read Vos’ statements Friday and that he would hold off on reacting to lawmaker comments until he sees an amended budget.
“I think it’s fair to say that the legislature, the governor, the regents and all of our university folks have a common desire to hold our colleges’ costs down. That’s a shared goal so let’s have a good conversation about that,” Giroux told Wisconsin Reporter.
He said accomplishing that mission could involve any number of options, from freezing or lowering tuition to expanding need-based aid.
“We can look at all of those,” the spokesman said.