Controversy follows UW-Stevens Point decision to cut Humanities programs


A UW-Stevens Point plan to transform its academic offerings — axing liberal arts degrees while adding them in science, engineering, business and technology — has some wondering if other University of Wisconsin System campuses will follow suit.

UW-Stevens Point officials unveiled the plan last week. It came in response to the university’s $4.5 million budget deficit, and as part of a push to emphasize what the university described as “high-demand career paths.”

If the UW Board of Regents approves the plan, it would eliminate 13 majors — including English, art, history, philosophy and foreign languages.

New degrees would be created in fields where the university already has a national reputation, such as the environment and natural resources, as well as information technology, engineering and physical therapy, and business fields such as finance and marketing.

The proposal is perhaps the most dramatic to emerge on a UW System campus since a $250 million state funding cut rocked the System in 2015. Revenues also have been crimped by a tuition freeze for in-state undergraduate students that has existed since 2013.

UW-Stevens Point provost Greg Summers, in a recent interview, made no bones about the plan’s implications.

“It’s clearly altering the mission of the university,” Summers said.

Some tenured faculty may be laid off as a result of the changes, though it’s not known how many, and any layoffs would happen no sooner than June 2020.

The proposal drew swift opposition from some — though not all — faculty and students at the university, who said it was fashioned without sufficient input and unsupported by data.

The proposal also reignited questions about the value of higher education in an era of skyrocketing student debt and questions about U.S. worker productivity: Should universities cultivate niche specialties of academic subjects or offer a broad array of them? Should they teach students skills tied to specific occupations, or widen students’ worldview while honing broad skills of analysis, creativity and communication?

Critics say UW-Stevens Point is placing its bets on the first answers to both questions — at the risk of undermining educational quality and access.

Some, such as state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, say it’s part of a broader effort by Republican lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker to transform the UW System.

Noel Radomski, who directs the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at UW-Madison, said the plan could hurt the university’s reputation and hamper student and faculty recruitment. Few other universities that faced budget deficits took similar steps, he said, and for good reason.

“They are going to have a firestorm,” Radomski said. “The word’s going to get out: Do you really want to go to Stevens Point?”

Others say the university is taking a tough but necessary step to re-imagine its role in the 21st century — one that other regional public universities may need to replicate.

“What was announced at Stevens Point is the vanguard of what’s to come,” said Sally Johnstone, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit focused on strategic decision making in higher education.

Other campuses react

UW-Stevens Point is one of 11 regional four-year UW System campuses. Unlike UW-Madison, these universities don’t place as much emphasis on faculty research and doctoral degrees.

The Stevens Point decision follows a move by UW-Superior in October to suspend 25 academic programs because of low enrollment. At least one other UW campuses, UW-Oshkosh — the System’s largest outside Madison and Milwaukee — also has a budget deficit that its officials are developing a plan to address.

In light of the Stevens Point announcement, at least one other campus, UW-La Crosse, felt compelled to reassure faculty and staff it is “in a sound financial state.”

“UW-La Crosse has no plans to cut programs, faculty, and/or staff,” provost Betsy Morgan wrote in an all-personnel email.

Summers said the budget deficit that provided the impetus for the plan was fueled by declining enrollment, state funding cuts and tuition freezes, and demographic projections in the central Wisconsin region it serves.

University officials acknowledged a System-wide merger of two- and four-year campuses also influenced the decision.

Programs were targeted for elimination, Summers said, based on two primary factors: which ones saw a decline in first-year students declaring them as majors, and “the clarity of career pathways that particular programs offered.”

The university has stressed that all students currently enrolled in the programs slated for elimination will be able to complete their majors. Courses will continue to be offered in those subjects, the university says — students just won’t be able to major in them.

Shankland and at least one faculty member at the university, English Professor Mary Bowman, said they haven’t seen data to show that fewer student are picking majors in the programs slated for elimination.

Bowman said she and others knew changes were being discussed but were surprised by their scope.

“I did not expect that every major in the Humanities and most in the Social Sciences would be eliminated in one fell swoop,” Bowman said.

Sign of the future?

Summers said UW System officials and other outsiders “didn’t have a lot of input” on the plan, which it said was crafted almost entirely on its campus.

Shankland isn’t buying that.

“I believe that this is 100 percent a product of conversations with Republicans who’ve done all these budget cuts and this is their goal: they want schools to specialize,” Shankland said.

If UW institutions move toward specialization, such that only one school in the System features the program in which they’re interested, Shankland says that will prevent some students from enrolling — especially nontraditional and first-generation students.

State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, chairwoman of the Senate Universities and Technical Colleges Committee, applauded UW-Stevens Point for what she described as a “courageous” restructuring. In it, Darling, R-River Hills, said she sees much for other UW institutions to emulate — both by aligning course offerings with the demands of students and employers and moving to specialize in areas in which a university already excels.

Darling’s Assembly counterpart, Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, said Stevens Point may not be the only UW campus to pursue such a plan.

“They’re playing toward the strengths that they have,” Murphy said. “It is important for them to differentiate themselves.”

Radomski said many other regional public universities face periodic budget deficits, but very few have responded like UW-Stevens Point. Eliminating programs, especially in the liberal arts where facilities and technical costs are minimal, doesn’t save much money, he said — adding that it saves almost nothing in the short term because first-year students must be given time to complete their degrees.

Measures other universities have taken to shore up their finances include, on the expenditure side, eliminating administrators and reducing facility expenses, and on the revenue side, expanding their interdisciplinary and online course offerings, Radomski said.

Professor: Pivot away from liberal arts

Not all faculty at Stevens Point are panning the proposal. Ken Menningen, a physics and astronomy professor who serves as the university’s faculty representative, said increasingly “prospective students are less interested in getting a bachelor’s degree unless it offers a clear career path.”

“Instead of fighting this cultural trend, we should instead pivot away from the liberal arts and toward professional-oriented programs that today’s students find more attractive,” Menningen said.

Some observers say the liberal arts must continue to play a central role because they provide the foundation for a broad-based education — critical in a knowledge-based economy and a representative democracy.

Mike Rindo, an assistant chancellor at UW-Eau Claire, said “a broad liberal arts-based approach has long been and will remain the foundation of a UW-Eau Claire education.”

“Employers tell us that they need university graduates who are versatile and possess problem solving, critical thinking, written and oral communication skills, and the ability to work collaboratively with others. Those are precisely the kinds of skills and knowledge that a broad liberal arts-based education provides,” Rindo said.

Menningen also said he “respectfully disagrees” with those who claim the plan was crafted without input.

“There have been many conversations among faculty, staff, and administration over the past few years about what our strategic plan should be, and what should be the signature programs of our campus,” Menningen said.

The possible tenured faculty layoffs would be made possible by a 2015 change to state law that weakened tenure protections for faculty. The change permits tenured faculty to be laid off “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” Previously, professors could be laid off only in a financial emergency or for serious misconduct.

As a 2011 political science graduate of UW-Stevens Point, Sen. Patrick Testin is an alumnus of one of the programs set for elimination.

Testin, R-Stevens Point, said Chancellor Bernie Patterson has told him the proposal is a “starting point” for discussion, not a done deal.

Testin acknowledges having mixed feelings. He has heard many questions about the plan from students and faculty, and he feels the university’s political science program gave him a good education.

But Testin, who chairs a Senate committee on workforce development, also sees benefits from the proposal, which he feels will help address the state’s worker shortage.

“From a practical standpoint,” Testin said, “UW-Stevens Point is trying to adapt with the times.”