By Alan Havorka, Stevens Point Journal
STEVENS POINT - Hundreds of demonstrators occupied the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s administration building on Wednesday, the first protest of its kind on the campus since the Vietnam War era.
Protesters criticized the proposed elimination of more than a dozen liberal arts majors, and demanded the university create a task force to deliver a counter-proposal.
The Save Our Majors demonstration of about 300 students, faculty, staff and community members happened as opposition intensifies against a proposal to cut 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences in favor of more technical degrees.
Demonstrators began with a few comments at the university’s landmark sundial and then marched on Old Main, the administrative building. Upon arriving, they flooded into the first few floors and conducted a silent sit-in for 13 minutes, a minute for each major on the chopping block.
Chancellor Bernie Patterson met the students as they conducted their action and received their letter of demands.
This was the first sit-in at the university since the 1970s, when students staged a similar occupation to protest the Vietnam War.
After the sit-in, protesters returned to the sundial to give hours of speeches. They carried signs that read, “Where’s your humanity? It’s been cut!” and "What makes a person? Their humanity!”
The letter delivered to Patterson calls for the creation of a task force that would deliver an alternative budget-cutting plan to the public by May 3. The letter asks that the task force include representation from each college on campus.
“(T)his proposal should specifically outline inclusion of the humanities core within the general education program, and researched evaluation of the impact on inclusion and diversity. While also maintaining as many of the current humanities offerings as possible,” the letter reads.
The letter acknowledges the university must change but says students and central Wisconsin residents oppose the current plan to address its $4.5 million projected deficit by targeting humanities majors.
Patterson commended Gigi Stahl, an organizer of the event and senior English major at UW-Stevens Point, saying he was proud of her and the other people demonstrating on Wednesday.
UW-Stevens Point, suffering years of enrollment declines and budget tightening, unveiled its proposal March 5 to eliminate majors that include English, history and political science.
The proposal included adding or expanding 16 other majors in a shift to degree programs that university administrators say are more popular and therefore more likely to attract students and their tuition revenue.
University officials said 80 percent of the humanities courses at the university will continue to be taught under the proposal. Between 6 percent and 10 percent of current UW-Stevens Point students fall under a major that the proposal would end, although all currently enrolled students would be allowed to complete those degrees.
Stahl, who is also the inclusivity director for the UW-Stevens Point Student Government Association, said that she knows that cuts must happen, but that students want a larger voice in the decision-making process.
“The administration has a choice to adopt us as a power behind them. We want to give them that choice because we want them on our team,” Stahl said. “We want to be able to push this forward. We know we have the power within our voice to do that.”
Stahl said that the university’s proposal can’t be "the only option.”
Many at the protest blamed Gov. Scott Walker and state Republican lawmakers for the university’s current predicament, citing tuition freezes and budget cuts.
“(The UW-Stevens Point proposal) is the flower with roots in a very toxic (state) budget,” Stahl said.
In her opening remarks for the demonstration, state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, called the current budget deficit at the university a “manufactured crisis” and said the elimination of liberal arts majors at UW-Stevens Point could be a sign of things to come for other UW System campuses.
In a news conference after the sit-in, Patterson pointed to the demonstration on Wednesday as a product of the quality of the humanities at UW-Stevens Point.
“If you’re interested in students who are engaged, look here. If you’re interested in students who are passionate, look here,” he said. “If you’re interested in students that feel comfortable in making their points of view known, if you’re interested in what the product of a liberal arts education is, look here.”
Patterson, however, challenged the idea that the proposal would turn the university into a technical college, citing an earlier statement that 80 percent of the humanities courses will continue.
“Doing nothing, keeping things as they are is not an option,” the chancellor said.
“I don’t want to frame this just as a reaction to the budget," he said. "We have an opportunity to do something different here. We have an opportunity to lead rather than follow. We have the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of education in this country.”
Patterson, who was not invited to speak at the demonstration but was invited to listen, later appeared at the speeches being given at the sundial.
At one point, one student’s speech turned directly to the chancellor.
“We feel expendable. This is how many students feel,” Ethan Cates, a senior philosophy and Spanish major, said. “I want you to see how much anger and frustration there is.”
Cates, who started school at UW-Stevens Point as a musical theater major, said many students come to college uncertain of what they want to study and humanities gives them options in figuring things out. Cates said the liberal arts kept him on campus when his plans fell through.
“I don’t want students to feel they don’t have any choices,” he said.
Cuts and expansions
The 13 majors that would be eliminated because of low enrollment are:
- American studies
- Art (but not graphic design)
- English (other than English for teacher certification)
- History (social science for teacher certification would continue)
- Music literature
- Political science
- Sociology (social work major would continue)
UW-Stevens Point proposes expanding eight academic programs as majors:
- Chemical engineering
- Computer information systems
- Conservation law enforcement
- Fire science
- Graphic design
Another eight bachelor's degrees or advanced degrees would be created:
- Captive wildlife
- Ecosystem design and remediation
- Environmental engineering
- Geographic information science
- Master of business administration
- Master of natural resources
- Doctor of physical therapy