A plan to eliminate 13 liberal arts degrees in favor of tech studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a small regional campus of the UW System, has gained national attention not so much for the fates of faculty and students who protested it last month, but as the latest sign of a changing attitude toward higher education.
Critics of the proposal say it is evidence of the UW System’s move toward becoming more technical college than university, part of a retreat from higher education supported by conservatives across the country.
“There’s a certain part of society that views higher education as job training and ignores the larger calling of higher education to provide an educated electorate and citizenry,” said Andy Felt, a UW-Stevens Point math professor and president of the local chapter of AFT-Wisconsin, a labor union without collective bargaining rights. There’s a part of the Republican Party, Felt said, that resists adequately funding public education, K-12 and higher education, at the levels required to fulfill its higher calling.
“That’s very narrow-minded, and it’s going to hurt the United States in the long-run,” Felt said.
Gov. Scott Walker attempted in 2015 to remove “the search for truth,” “public service,” and “improving the human condition,” from the University of Wisconsin’s mission, in favor of workforce development.
A Pew Center poll last summer showed that 58 percent of Republicans said colleges and universities had a negative effect on the way things were going in the country. The year before, however, 62 percent of Republicans said that a four-degree prepares students well for the workforce.
As an indication of the direction mapped out by UW System administrators, a guest panel at the April meeting of the governing Board of Regents in Madison featured public and private workforce and economic development experts. The purpose of the panel was to help regents “assess important policy issues they may not otherwise have an opportunity to address ... as part of the University of Wisconsin’s efforts to more closely align the resources of the university with the needs of the state.”
Greg Summers, UW-Stevens Point provost and point man on the program discontinuation proposal, insisted that campus officials value liberal arts studies and stressed that classes would continue to be offered in most of the 13 targeted fields, just not degrees.
Faced with a projected $4.5 million structural deficit over the next two years and falling enrollment, UW-Stevens Point has no choice, Summers, a former history professor, said in an interview. Years of small across the board cuts have not done the trick. “We have to accept financial reality and we need to discontinue programs,” he said. The administration has tried everything else, he said.
The story has been picked up by such national news outlets as the Washington Post and Forbes. The issue has ignited Twitter posts under hashtags like #SaveOurMajors, #SaveOurUW and #WeArePointhumanities, where posters have disparaged the proposals, criticized a perceived lack of transparency, and queried as to whether the “everything” tried included voluntary pay cuts for administrators.
The national reaction went beyond what had been anticipated, Summers said.
“The storyline certainly made its way out to a national dialogue in a way that was unexpected and a way I haven’t seen in my time here,” he said. Summers estimated that officials received a couple hundred emails and messages via the campus website from students, faculty, alumni, professional organizations and other people connected in some way to the university. Most expressed opposition or deep concerns, he said, adding that was the type of comment expected.
Some donors have been “quite supportive,” and others talked about not donating to the university in the future. “That, too, is not surprising,” Summers said.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, he argued that the supply of both tuition paying students and public funding had so diminished since the campus’ halcyon days in the 1970s (when the state funded 50 percent of the campus’ costs, compared to 15 percent today) that it must refocus on the applied learning and career preparation that have always drawn most of its students.
In an Inside Higher Ed essay, Summers responded to concerns raised by a phalanx of scholarly associations who asserted such cuts in liberal arts majors would leave students less prepared for careers of the 21st century, by arguing that basic liberal arts courses the majority of students must now take do not serve them well. UW-Stevens Point is asking how “the liberal arts can better educate everyone,” Summers wrote.
Summers said administrators are trying to preserve up to 80 percent of faculty in curriculum in the 13 targeted areas of American studies, art, English, French, geography, geoscience, German, history, music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish. But he refused in an interview to compute that goal into a number of jobs likely to be lost.
Critics of the proposed cuts at UW-Stevens Point say groundwork for them was laid by changes to state law in 2015 that made it easier to lay off tenured faculty. The revised law permits tenured faculty to be let go because of program discontinuations, while in the past a campus had to declare an economic emergency — of the sort that might scare off prospective students and dim the resume of a sitting chancellor — before laying off or terminating tenured faculty.
Regent policy created to implement the revised law calls for review of program discontinuation proposals by a faculty committee, something Summers said he has asked faculty at his campus to form as soon as possible.
And in response to student demands, the standing Academic Affairs Committee of the campus shared governance body for faculty and staff has been tasked with drawing up by early May an alternative that preserves all the humanities majors.
What’s more, the campus Student Government Association is forming a task force to offer alternative proposals, hopefully by the end of the semester, said president Sean Piette.
“I don’t know what they will look like yet, but we will continue to listen to students and possibly lobby in Madison,” Piette said. “We want to see if we can talk to legislators and regents about how in order to have a system that is strong and vibrant we need to have support – financial support, legal support, social support.”
A demonstration by some 300 students, faculty and staff on March 21 – which included a brief, silent sit-in outside Chancellor Bernie Patterson’s office – “woke up” administrators, Piette said. But he said that the protest likely has not shaken support from top administrators for their proposal.
Piette attributed the national attention the Stevens Point campus is getting to the fact that it is humanities that are on the chopping block. “It taps into a political divide,” he said. “A lot of people who lean right don’t see a degree in English as a direct enough connection to a career to constitute funding it anymore,” Piette said.
Controversy around liberal arts offerings as preparation for the workforce serves critics of public education, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
“The narrow focus on earning power makes it easier for state legislatures and taxpayers to justify defunding higher education,” she wrote in a message.
The idea that public funding should not be used for liberal arts education, which should be relegated to private, prestigious institutions, risks a dangerous elitism, Pasquerella argued.
“We need to be vigilant in rebutting accusations level against the liberal arts and sciences and to recognize those charges for what they are: collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy in which only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions,” she said.
It’s no coincidence that the shift in attitude on education as public good to private commodity coincided with “opening the gates to women, first-generation college students, students of color and the poor,” Pasquerella said.
Professor Felt said he holds a lot of trust in the ability of his colleagues at UW-Stevens Point on the faculty committees that will offer alternatives to come up with something that “spreads the pain around a little bit more.”
“The real solution is a reasonable funding level that reflects the priorities of the people of Wisconsin,” he said.