UW-Stevens Point will not lay off tenured faculty to carry out a proposed plan eliminating six academic majors, a reversal from what officials predicted last fall may be needed to address a roughly $8 million budget deficit.
University Chancellor Bernie Patterson confirmed the news to faculty and staff in a campuswide email Thursday, saying the goal was achieved through “a combination of retirements and thoughtful planning.”
The laying off of tenured faculty would have presented the University of Wisconsin System with its first test to the tenure policy adopted by the Board of Regents in 2016.
UW-Stevens Point’s “Point Forward” proposal released in November, however, is still on the table. The plan calls for cutting French, German, geoscience, geography, history and two bachelor’s degree concentrations in art because of low enrollment going back years, according to officials.
Patterson’s email does not rule out layoffs for nontenured faculty. He estimated last fall between eight and 10 positions could be cut.
Mary Bowman, an English professor and chairwoman of the faculty’s Common Council who was briefed on the plan, said tenure-track professors in those departments may not receive contract renewals, though it was unclear how many would be affected.
Bowman said the French and German departments may be retained for students seeking a minor or to fulfill a language requirement for other majors.
The history department may also be spared, according to history professor Rob Harper, because three-fourths of the courses taught by the department are for non-history majors and are offered to students fulfilling general education requirements or pursuing a secondary education degree in social science.
David Ozsvath, chairman of the geography and geoscience departments, said his departments were being encouraged to find others to collaborate with on new programming.
“It’s sort of like being at a dance and you have to find a partner,” he said.
Ozsvath said he did not blame the university, which he said inherited the situation from the UW System and state.
Last March, amid declining student enrollment and a budget deficit, the UW-Stevens’ Point announced the elimination of 13 academic programs — a plan officials later retreated from after student protests and national headlines such as “Inhumanity to the humanities.”
Since the spring plan, Ozsvath said four of the 10 faculty members in the geography and geoscience departments have left and another two will be leaving within about a year, leaving too few faculty to keep a full program running.
“By announcing this a year ago, they essentially achieved the goal without laying anybody off because people have just left,” he said, adding that he did not believe that was the administration’s intent.
The departures aren’t isolated to the affected departments, such as Ozsvath’s. Faculty in “safe” departments have also left.
Fourteen faculty members have retired or resigned since officials announced the “Point Forward” plan in mid-November, four of which belonged to an affected department, according to a letter Patterson sent Wednesday to Common Council leadership.
Thursday’s announcement comes about two weeks after 156 of the university’s roughly 300 faculty members attended an all-faculty meeting to approve a statement expressing dissatisfaction with administrative leadership.
The Feb. 8 letter said leadership has failed to strategically plan beyond a general vision statement, that “Point Forward” has harmed the university’s reputation, that the plan was introduced in a way that has divided the campus and that faculty input on the proposal has been minimized and ignored.
A count of the vote was not available Thursday, but the letter overwhelmingly passed.
The statement arose after university leadership characterized a previous letter that called for the removal of Patterson and Provost Greg Summers as coming from a small percentage of current faculty and staff.
A few days after the Feb. 8 statement passed, Patterson said in a statement: “I appreciate the opportunity to listen and learn, to provide information and answer questions. We will continue to ensure the university we love, and the students we are dedicated to serving, are on a path to success.”
Patterson is working with faculty to make decisions on program elimination by the end of the semester. It requires no action by the Regents.
Test for tenure
Tenure offers protection for academic freedom, the principle that professors creating knowledge and expressing ideas should be free to do so without the threat of intimidation or retaliation.
In 2015, Wisconsin was the only state to have tenure protections written into state law. Republican lawmakers at that time said they did not support the idea that anyone should be guaranteed a job for life and also that removing it would bring the UW System in line with its peers.
Under the old policy, if a program or department was discontinued faculty with tenure had to be placed in a different position. Tenured faculty could be laid off only in a campuswide financial emergency or be terminated for just cause.
The Republican-led state Legislature then directed the Board of Regents to develop a policy that allowed chancellors the ability to lay off tenured faculty if a program was discontinued, which the Regents did.
The changes to tenure blindsided faculty, led to poaching from peer institutions and drew national attention to Wisconsin in 2015 and 2016.
UW-Stevens Point faculty say the new policy laid the groundwork for the administration’s push to eliminate academic programs.
Officials have disputed this, saying the proposal is a broader restructuring to infuse liberal arts into career-focused programs that will establish UW-Stevens Point as a “model for universities in the 21st century.”