The controversy over the planned elimination of 13 humanities majors at UW-Stevens Point has become a “communication nightmare,” Regent Regina Millner said Thursday in Madison.
Yet changes in program offerings were needed and shared governance processes were respected, Millner insisted.
“As for Stevens Point, that’s turned into a communication nightmare,” Millner said during a forum at UW-Madison on shared governance, the practice in higher education of giving faculty, staff and students a say in issues directly affecting them. UW System campuses have deliberative bodies of faculty, staff and students set up to provide such feedback on administrative proposals.
The proposed cuts were met by protests by UW-Stevens Point students and faculty, and another major rally is planned for May 9 in Madison. And the Board of Supervisors in Portage County, where the campus is located, last month voted its support for retaining the humanities majors marked for elimination.
And while Millner was speaking Thursday to the problems with communication of the campus program cuts plan, the Stevens Point Journal and other news outlets were publishing emails from some of her colleagues on the UW System Board of Regents praising campus officials’ messaging on the issue.
"This is what good, thoughtful leadership is all about," Regent Drew Petersen, vice president of the Board of Regents, wrote to UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson on March 28. "Congratulations to you and (UWSP) Provost (Greg) Summers for staying true to your vision on these reforms."
Regent Bryan Steil praised two essays published on national higher education news websites under the byline of Summers in an April 3 email to Patterson. “The articles do a great job of laying out the rational of the changes and how they help (rather than hinder) the Point Forward initiative,” Steil wrote.
Steil’s support for the proposed cuts at UW-Stevens Point was made public as Millner insisted that members of the Board of Regents should not take a position.
“For us to be in favor of what’s being done or not like what’s being done, that shifts the whole dynamic. That’s not appropriate,” Millner said at the forum Thursday featuring a guest panel sponsored by PROFS, a lobbying group representing UW-Madison faculty; WISCAPE, the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education; the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership.
Regents get involved after the campus process is complete, Millner said. A UW-Stevens Point campus committee evaluating the plan this week asked for more time to come up with an alternative way to deal with a projected $4.5 million deficit over the next two years. Administrators had asked for a formal proposal by August 1, and Summers responded that he didn’t know if the school had time for continued debate.
There has been pressure for the Board of Regents and UW System administrators to get involved in the UW-Stevens Point issue, Millner said.
UW System President Ray Cross spoke to it during an April 5 regents meeting in Madison, saying “we do not want to unintentionally influence these discussions or, ultimately, decisions.”
But Cross had sent Summers an email days earlier praising the pieces published by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.
“I’m supporting the process and that (Summers) did a nice job of defending his position. I thought it was good that he put it into the public,” Cross told USA Today Network. “Individual board members will react to (the proposal) differently. I know there are some on the board that are supportive and some that aren’t.”
At Thursday’s forum Noel Radomski, managing director of WISCAPE, asked Millner why the Board of Regents had not intervened at Stevens Point.
Radomski said the campus review process circumvented shared governance process by using a different committee to analyze the proposal. What’s more, two UW Colleges two-year campuses, UW-Marathon County and UW-Marshfield/Wood County, that are scheduled to become branches of UW-Stevens Point in a system-wide reorganization next year, were not consulted, he said. Humanities studies, like those degree programs marked for elimination, are the core of the two-year campus programs.
“How bad things do things have to get on those campuses before the regents come in and say let’s work on this collaboratively, let’s understand what the issues are and get back on track?” Radomski asked.
“This is precedent setting,” he said. “Which institution is next?”
Nick Fleisher, president of the Wisconsin Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said after the forum that the challenge for shared governance in Wisconsin today is its role in making education decisions in an environment of financial crises.
“What’s important is there be a strong faculty role that keeps educational considerations prioritized,” said Fleisher, an associate professor of linguistics at UW-Milwaukee.
Panel member Gary Rhoades, director of the Center of the Study of Higher Education at University of Arizona, sees promise in the resistance at UW-Stevens Point.
“There is the potential here, as there is nationally, for a mass mobilization or use of public outcry to put the brakes on and say enough is enough,” Rhoades said.
Despite all the benefits the University of Wisconsin brings to the state, “you have a legislature and a governor who see you as the enemy and who have an austerity agenda about reducing you, not investing in you,” he said.
Turning it around so that public officials support investment in education requires more than shared governance, Rhoades said.
“What it requires is to get in the streets,” he said. That’s what the students and their supporters have done at UW-Stevens Point, Rhoades noted.
“It has the potential to redirect the public conversation,” he said. "And make officials at the next campus where cuts are being eyed stop and think about how to best enlist the people on campus to find program changes that are right for that institution."