‘Dropping this mess in our laps’: Local politicians speak out on closure of UWO Fox Cities campus

MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) – It was shortly after 8:00 a.m. on Thursday when Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson got the call he had been wondering about for months: what the fate of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Fox Cities campus would be.

“That was sort of the answer we had been asking for, for months,” Nelson said of his and other local politicians questioning about the campus. “We had been asking specifically what their plan is.”

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Faced with declining enrollment, a 67% drop according to university officials, and currently only 473 students, the decision was made to close the campus by June 30, 2025.

“We made a difficult decision but also a responsible decision as stewards of not just the university but also the region that we serve,” Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said at a press conference Thursday. “We’ve been very open about the fact, starting with our own employees, that this is a possible eventuality because of our declining enrollment.”

But Nelson claims that he was left out of the loop and that the decision was made weeks ago. He cites a freedom of information request he made earlier this spring on numbers regarding the feasibility of the campus, which he says took three weeks to receive.

“We learned now that the report that they sent to us, they had known, they had made their decision to close this campus on April 30,” Nelson said.

According to Leavitt, the decision to close the campus was made on Monday by Universities of Wisconsin president Jay Rothman.

“UW Oshkosh is working to ensure it has a bright future, which requires tough decisions now,” Rothman said in a statement to Local 5. “Unfortunately, the analysis is that the market and enrollment cannot sustain the Fox Cities Campus moving forward.”

Nelson is frustrated by what he feels is a lack of transparency and potentially poor management of taxpayer funds.

“The taxpayers in this county have invested millions of dollars into that facility,” he said. “Now UW-Oshkosh and the system are pulling up stakes and leaving us with this very nice facility, and basically giving this mess, dropping this mess in our laps and telling us we have to fix this problem.”

However, Leavitt says that deciding the future of the campus, which is decorated with the Barlow Planetarium and Weis Museum, among other attractions, will be a priority for university leadership.

“It will be right at the top of conversation as we move through the weeks and months ahead is how to best preserve the assets at the campus,” he said.

Winnebago County executive Jon Doemel, who was not able to be reached for an interview but released a statement, further underscored the taxpayer contribution to the campus.

“We are still processing what a closure of the campus means for our communities,” Doemel said. “Today, we do not have answers on the future of the Barlow Planetarium, the Weis Earth Science Museum, the Communication Arts Center, or the University Children’s Center. The taxpayers have invested millions into these assets.”

All 16 faculty members are expected to be transferred to the main Oshkosh campus, but it is unclear what will happen to the 64 staff members at this time.

“Further financial evaluation is necessary as we develop a 2026 budget to determine Fox Cities Campus staff members opportunities for this same transition,” Leavitt said.

Leaders say that students will be assisted with transferring internally or externally to the UW system.

Leavitt was adamant that budgetary issues did not play a factor in the campus’s closure and that it solely had to do with a lack of demand in higher education across the country and heavy competition in the area.

“There are 11 public and private institutions and technical college sites within 50 miles of the UW-Fox Cities campus,” Leavitt said. “This is driven completely by the decline in enrollment. It is not necessarily related to the financial issues we’re working through at the university in general.”

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs Ed Martini says this issue is affecting multiple schools in the system. The Fond du Lac and Marinette locations were closed for the same reason.

“We have seen a significant shift in demand, and that has caused major challenges for what are known as the access campuses for the University of Wisconsin system,” Martini said.

Martini explained that significant restructuring is occurring within campuses, particularly at UWO, to prevent those issues from affecting other campuses.

“So we can look more closely and focus on the student experience and organize our colleges, schools, and departments, which will be sorted into career clusters that will look much more familiar and recognizable for students working with those career clusters,” he said.

Leavitt told me that he is not aware of any other campuses that would be facing closures in the near future.

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He also says that the decision was made in the best interest of UWO Fox Cities students, whose experience would begin to suffer if the campus continued to be utilized.

“We can still provide the service; it’s not degraded to the point where we’re concerned about the student experience, but we can’t go another year or two,” he said.