There’s been plenty of backlash, some on a national scale, to the idea that the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point would cut 13 liberal arts majors like English and history in favor of technical studies and in-demand fields.
Critics say a narrow focus on job preparation deprives students of holistic education.
“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 a local labor union. “That’s very narrow-minded, and it’s going to hurt the United States in the long-run.”
A statement signed by members of 20 scholarly associations pointed out that college graduates are likely to change their careers several times, and “by focusing on preparation only for narrowly defined jobs, Stevens Point administrators risk leaving students with considerably poorer preparation for the full range of careers.”
On the Sunday political talk show “UpFront with Mike Gousha,” Bernie Patterson, UW-Stevens Point chancellor, agreed that “many of the jobs that our students will be filling in their careers do not even exist today.
“But I think it’s a misnomer to conclude that the more career-oriented majors do not also prepare students for a variety of opportunities that will come their way,” he said. “No one discipline has a monopoly on creative thinking or critical thinking or working in groups or teaching students to communicate.”
In March, the university released a plan that would cut 13 undergraduate liberal arts majors at UW-Stevens Point which “do not draw very many students to the university in the first place,” Patterson said, and instead focus resources on 16 fields of study like business, chemical engineering and graphic design.
The plan garnered national attention and was met with criticism from liberal arts groups like the American Anthropological Association and the Modern Language Association. About 300 students held a protest sit-in outside Patterson’s office in March.
On “UpFront,” Patterson said the university was still early in the process of deciding next steps.
“On March the fifth, we released a proposal, and it’s only that — a proposal,” he said.
They’re still exploring other possibilities to solve the campus’ projected $4.5 million structural deficit, and are awaiting alternative proposals from a committee of the campus’ common council and the student government, Patterson said. He doesn’t expect any decisions to go before the Board of Regents until the fall semester.
“Thus far what we’ve heard is, ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that,’ but there haven't been very many suggestions on what to do. And no action is, frankly, not a choice,” he said.
Change is needed because of cuts to university funding and declining enrollment at Stevens Point, he said.
Only about 15 percent of UW-Stevens Point’s budget comes from the state, down from 50 percent in the 1970s. If tuition had increased at the rate of inflation, rather than remained at a six-year tuition freeze, the university would have an additional $7 million in revenue, he said.
Enrollment, this year at just over 8,200, has dropped 16 percent in the last seven years, he said, and two-thirds of that is attributable to a “very significant increase in the graduation rate,” with students graduating faster.
“(Students are) going to work sooner, paying their taxes, paying back their student loans, they’re contributing to the workforce,” he said. “This is good news for everyone, except it has a pretty devastating impact on the bottom line.”
Patterson said that if the plan is adopted, there could possibly be layoffs, but “we don’t expect that we would have to lay off tenured faculties in all of these areas,” due to faculty retirement and faculty members who have “moved on to other opportunities.”
Plus, the university will continue to offer about 80 percent of its arts and humanities courses, he said. The university would not be the only school in the system to be missing some humanities majors, he said, as four universities don't offer a major in philosophy, three don’t offer a major in sociology and four don’t offer a Spanish major.
Gousha asked how Patterson felt about all the attention on the university. Patterson said that while sometimes information has been “misinterpreted” or “less than accurate,” the attention has helped ignite discussion about what to do next.
“The fact that we’re having this conversation and the fact that the campus is now truly engaged in what we can become in the future has been a huge advantage, I think,” he said. “We have more faculty and staff participation now than we’ve ever had in looking to and shaping the future.”