The Great Room of the Yellowjacket Union at the University of Wisconsin-Superior was less than half-filled for a forum on Monday, but at one point about half of those in attendance had their hands raised.

They were responding to state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason, who had asked how many people were, or would be, first-generation college graduates.

Her question underscored a point that had been raised by state Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, during the forum on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed cut of $300 million over two years to the University of Wisconsin system budget, and the effect it would have on UWS in particular.

Milroy’s point: UWS, representing one of the poorest regions in the state, is the first opportunity many families have to obtain the advantages that a higher education brings.

“My parents were first-generation college graduates,” Milroy said. “They were able to attend UW-Superior in the 1960s because it was very affordable. … First-generation college graduates are so important to our economy and our future and our well-being.”

If Milroy was looking for an argument, he wasn’t going to find it at UWS on Monday. Not surprisingly, given the location, speaker after speaker railed against Walker’s plan, saying it would cripple the UW system in general and UWS in particular.

Moderator Tom Hansen said 92 percent of those in attendance registered as opposed to the cuts, with the rest indicating no opinion.

No one from Walker’s office was present, but earlier on Monday a spokeswoman defended his plan in an email.

Laurel Patrick, the governor’s press secretary, noted that Walker’s proposal would “provide the UW system with the authority and flexibility it has been seeking for years, while freezing tuition for two years to maintain college affordability for our state’s hard-working families.”

She also pointed to a $250 million UW system cut in 2003 during the Jim Doyle administration in which he allowed the UW system to raise in-state tuition by $150 million. That led to an average tuition increase of 18 percent during the 2003-04 school year and 15 percent in 2004-05, Patrick said.

Unlike Walker, Doyle “did not give them the tools to manage their budget,” Patrick said.

UWS Chancellor Renée Wachter, who sat on the panel with Bewley and Milroy, said the system did need greater flexibility, but that was a separate issue from the budget cuts.

“It certainly is not a quid pro quo,” she said. “We should have flexibility regardless of the budget situation.”

Milroy was unimpressed by the two-year tuition freeze, saying the cuts would force UW campuses to raise tuition down the road, if not now.

People from the audience who spoke represented UWS staff, faculty, students, community members, parents of students - and in some cases more than one category at a time.

Brigid Ripley, a teacher at South Shore School in Port Wing, received her master’s degree at UWS in 2012 and is working on a specialty degree there. A son also is attending UWS, she said.

In the South Shore district, Ripley said, “the economy is not what you’d call thriving, and the UW system is pretty much the only place the majority of our students go. … And I’d hate to see anything stand in the way of this terrific system.”

Kara Schmidt, a junior at UWS who is speaker of the Student Senate, noted that the school has one of only 12 transportation logistics programs in the country and is the third-largest research school in the state.

“Students are the future taxpayers of Wisconsin,” Schmidt said. “We’re already criticized for not buying houses, getting married and making investments, but how are we supposed to do that when our state won’t invest in us?”

William A. Swenson, a 1962 UWS graduate, also spoke of research at the school, saying that while it is the smallest campus in the system, it is one of the leaders in natural resources research.

Although he opposes budget cuts, Swenson also said the system needs to be more efficient.

“We should be able to do more administrative work through Madison, and if that’s possible we could cut costs,” Swenson said.

Perhaps UWS and nearby Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College could be tied together more closely, he said, or all of the UW campuses on the Great Lakes could function as one.

“I think we have to have some ideas in reserve,” Swenson said.

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