WisBusiness: MATC head sees 'perfect storm' of rising enrollment, cuts in aid

By Kay Nolan
For WisBusiness.com

Milwaukee Area Technical College president Michael Burke deplored an anticipated 30 percent cut in state aid as part of Gov. Scott Walker's proposed state budget, telling a business group it comes at a time when enrollment has increased 16 percent and community interest is high in the tech school programs.

Burke, who took the helm of MATC in January 2010, told about 180 people at the Milwaukee Rotary Club luncheon on Tuesday that the cuts would slash an estimated $7.5 million from MATC, which served nearly 48,000 students last year -- a student enrollment that Burke noted exceeds that of Ohio State University.

"This is happening when we are faced with double-digit enrollment increases and it's happening in a city that's fourth in the nation in poverty," he said. "This is a perfect storm for us."

MATC is seeking additional federal grants to help make up the loss, he said. About a half-dozen grants have been confirmed, and the college has another 115 grant applications pending, he said,

Burke told WisBusiness.com his faculty and staff, which ratified labor contracts within the past few months, are maintaining morale but remain concerned over a feeling that Wisconsin is in a "state of flux."

"There's a sense of ambiguity, I think, that's more concerning than perhaps the fiscal impacts. It's more the ambiguity of it, how the whole state is going to manage all of this," he said.

Burke said he remains a firm supporter of collective bargaining for public workers, including his own faculty and staff.

Of critics who say that MATC educators are overpaid, Burke said, "Certain folks tend to look at folks' salaries, rather than looking at the pay scale. If you work summers and you work over(time) you can make more than the maximum on the payscale. I wish the conversation were around salary schedules, which are depersonalized. Don't pick the 34-year veteran who's at the top of the scale with a PhD and generalize from all that."

Burke called MATC a leader in the Midwest in promoting and teaching green energy skills. Among the school's 200-plus degrees and certificates are numerous "new and virgin" programs, he said, including green technology, health information technology, computer simulation/gaming, e-business technology, IT security, medical coding, web design and animation.

In addition, he said, final approval is pending on three additional programs, developed in tandem with Milwaukee-area business groups and employers: urban agriculture, food science/manufacturing, and sustainable food systems.

Burke staunchly defended MATC as a higher-education institution and said that last year, 4,227 stujdents reported already having baccalaureate degrees.

"That.makes us the second largest graduate school in Wisconsin -- I love saying that," said Burke.

Further, 97 percent of MATC grads reported finding work in Wisconsin. "There's no brain drain here," said Burke.

Burke acknowledged, however, that a majority of high school graduates entering MATC need remedial help in basic academics, particularly math.

Burke came to Milwaukee from San Jose, Calif., where he was president of San Jose Community College. Burke was hired almost a year after former MATC president Darnell Cole was fired after being arrested on drunken-driving charges.

Burke said one of his main accomplishments during his first year as president was overseeing the completion of a massive solar "farm" at the site of a brownfield in Milwaukee. The project, near Capitol Drive and Humboldt Ave., will provide electricity to public TV stations 10 and 36, which MATC manages, he said.
Similarly, Burke called MATC's 34,000-square foot energy conservation and advanced manufacturing facility in Oak Creek, which opened in 2008 in partnership with Johnson Controls, "unlike anything I've seen" even in Silicon Valley.

In response to a question from the audience, Burke said he had strong negative feelings about the influx of for-profit colleges and tech schools, saying many of them "charge an arm and a leg", may be unaccredited, and leave many students in debt the rest of their lives.

"It is criminal -- it is the moral equivalent of payday loans in my book." said Burke, although he added that some for-profits, such as the University of Phoenix, are of good quality.

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