The University of Wisconsin System says the COVID-19 pandemic has had a $720 million impact on state universities between March 2020 and June 30 of this year. But after a large infusion of federal stimulus funds, the system's vice president of finance says it's in "pretty good shape."

During a Thursday, Oct. 7, presentation to the UW Board of Regents in Oshkosh, UW System Vice President of Finance Sean Nelson gave his fifth COVID-19 financial update since the pandemic forced the closure of all in-person activities at UW campuses in March of last year.

Nelson said the grand total of revenue losses and unexpected costs over the 15-month period worked out to $720 million.

"And that includes the out-of-pocket expenses to cover related costs for PPE (personal protective equipment), testing, revenue loss from the auxiliary units and some enrollment loss," said Nelson.

The auxiliary units Nelson referred to include things like residence halls and dining centers. When system campuses shut down and sent most students home last spring, colleges refunded around $78 million in unused housing and dining fees.

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But Nelson said with the help of federal stimulus funds, the UW System is in "pretty good shape" with its finances.

"As we all know, we've had quite a bit of infusion of federal money, which really mitigated the overall impact," said Nelson. "So, we have a net impact, after factoring in the federal dollars, of about $330 million through the end of last fiscal year."

The UW System has been allocated $575 million in stimulus funds over the course of the pandemic. Half of that is slated for emergency student financial support.

During the past fiscal year, campuses also cut around $300 million in spending from their budgets through things like employee furloughs, reductions in university travel and utility savings.

On Oct. 4, UW System interim President Tommy Thompson announced unrestricted reserves, including tuition fund balances, have grown by $189 million.

On Thursday, UW Regent Bob Atwell urged system officials to take recent employee pay cuts from furloughs into account when thinking about the current balances.

"By what mechanism do we reconsider the actions that were taken that harmed or were borne by our employees?" asked Atwell. "And how do we as regents process that, evaluate it? Many organizations have gone back and made people whole."

In response, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said that her campus has created a "substantial bonus pool" by putting money into merit and retention funds "to let them know that this last year was strange, but we're back to normal, and we really want to appreciate and reward those who deserve it."

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