Crunch time on MATC plan to unload downtown campus

By Jody Knauss — Though some details have changed, MATC leadership continues full-speed ahead on its shortsighted plan to vacate the Downtown Education Center (DTEC) at 211 N. Carroll St.

On April 6, President Jack Daniels asked the college’s Board of Trustees for permission to offer developers a minimum 50-year lease on the DTEC property, including the right to demolish the building and redevelop the entire block. Previously, Daniels had suggested selling the property outright.

Community forums are scheduled for April 12, 6pm at DTEC and April 14, 6pm at Fountain of Life Church, 633 W. Badger Rd. (east of Park Street). A special MATC Board meeting to take public comment will be held on April 20 at Truax (Main Building, Room B3243/B3253), 4:30pm.

The new proposal still abandons the DTEC campus, reneging on a commitment to maintain a presence downtown originally made when the college moved its main campus to Truax in northeast Madison in the early 1980s, and reaffirmed in 2010 when the administration promised reinvestment at DTEC as it pursued, and won, a $134 million building referendum.

Instead, Daniels wants to close a campus that still serves nearly 6000 students a year and replace it with a much smaller, less accessible campus in south Madison.

The administration has asked the board to give the go-ahead at its May 4 meeting.

Administration Provides Skewed Analysis

For the last year, Daniels has repeatedly said that the DTEC building needs a $30 million renovation even though referendum materials and studies commissioned by the college more recently show no such thing.

In a recent Capital Times article, former WTCS board member and Dane County Executive Jonathan Barry, after touring the building, called the $30 million estimate “nonsense.” Barry and former UW-Madison chancellor John Wiley both described the plan to unload DTEC as “ill-conceived.”

Incredibly, Daniels falsely told the board that DTEC is in fact the old Madison Central High School, and then gave an impassioned reading of a 1966 Wisconsin State Journal editorial urging that Central High be closed in part because its physical plant “is obsolete and incapable of being brought up to standard.” Daniels urged the board to, 50 years later, finally make the sensible decision.

That the MATC President either didn’t know DTEC is not Central High (the Central High building was demolished decades ago to create the current MATC parking lot), or thought he could snow the board on such a basic fact, speaks volumes.

The administration has also suggested that declining enrollment at DTEC in recent years has precipitated a kind of death spiral. Daniels told the board in April, “Time and time over, there have been attempts to grow programming [at DTEC] that would relate to increased enrollment, but time and time again, those attempts have been failures.”

This is simply false. Administration figures show that DTEC enrollment was consistent at about 8000 students per year through 2013, declining to just under 6000 students in 2015 only as programming has been relocated to new construction at Truax.

The campus that won’t die

In the last five years:

• Referendum funds were supposed to be invested at DTEC; didn’t happen.

• Plans to backfill DTEC with a coordinated college transfer program were developed but implementation was blocked.

• The cafeteria at DTEC was closed. Textbooks were pulled from the bookstore. Janitorial services were outsourced (though this disastrous move was later reversed). Library hours have been cut back.

Yet DTEC continues to serve more students than any other metro or regional campus.

Nor has the administration made any effort to find out what might happen to DTEC students if the campus is closed. In contrast, students at the West Campus were extensively surveyed prior to closing to understand whether and where they might continue their education.

South Madison: if you build it, will they come?

MATC’s current Madison South campus has seen a steeper decline in enrollment than DTEC, from a much smaller base and without any extenuating circumstances (no programs have been removed or cut back). Due to low enrollment, just six liberal arts classes were offered at South in Fall 2015.

But the administration has concluded that declining enrollment means something different at South than it does at DTEC: at South, it signals the need for greater investment in services and offerings.

Yet there is still no “South Madison Initiative” plan that coherently explains why South campus enrollment is declining or how MATC intends to attract the students needed to fill a bigger campus.

MATC, like community colleges everywhere, is grappling with the problem of how to educate students who come to campus significantly underprepared. The college has developed a Bridges program offering intensive teaching and wrap-around student services that shows real promise. But the key to Bridges is investment in personnel, not bricks and mortar.

Instead, MATC administration has proposed temporary expansion at the current South campus and still seeks approval to develop a new comprehensive campus in south Madison that will offer:

• Sufficient course offerings to allow students to earn an associate’s degree without taking courses elsewhere;

• Enrollment services; academic advising; a testing center, library and tutoring services; counseling, career and employment services; student life programming;

• Space for: classrooms and labs; library and tutoring space; faculty and staff offices; student service operations; meeting rooms; and student lounge.

Such space, and the ability to serve 5 or 10 times as many students, of course already exists at DTEC in a building easily accessible to students from all over Madison. It makes no educational sense to throw away DTEC to fund a smaller facility that, even if wildly successful, will only serve a fraction of the number of students DTEC does.

DTEC staff has developed a short list of fiscally prudent alternative recommendations that would still allow expanding MATC’s presence in south Madison:

• Before getting rid of DTEC, use the next two years to do what the board asked Daniels to do last year: explore the highest and best use of the facility.

• Minimize new investment in west Madison.

• Expand at current Madison South campus in a targeted manner based on the needs of local residents and current students.

What to do?

Community forums are scheduled for April 12, 6pm at DTEC and April 14, 6pm at Fountain of Life Church, 633 W. Badger Rd. (east of Park Street). A special MATC Board meeting to take public comment will be held on April 20 at Truax (Main Building, Room B3243/B3253), 4:30pm.

The board has been asked to make a decision at its May 4 meeting.