Amid Protests at UW-Stevens Point, Lawmaker Calls for Commission on Higher Ed

By Pat Schneider, The Cap Times

As hundreds of demonstrators occupied the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point administration building this week to protest proposed cuts to liberal arts programs, a state legislator called for a blue ribbon panel to help set the future direction of the UW System.

A bill introduced Thursday by Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, would create a 19-member blue ribbon commission to set a public agenda for the university system, and long-term goals and priorities, including for accessibility and affordability.

The bill is co-sponsored by 21 Democratic members of the Assembly.

In a display of public distrust of UW administration, students, faculty, staff and community members in Stevens Point joined in the protest of a plan to cut 13 majors to respond to a $4.5 million structural deficient. Art, English, history, political science and other humanities and social science majors would be cut in favor of more technical fields of study.

Students said they have not been given a voice in the planned program changes, and called for an alternate budget proposal. Faculty have raised concerns that changes in academic offerings will rely on a 2015 change in state law that made it easier for UW System schools to dismiss tenured faculty. And community members have said they fear the cuts proposed would diminish the cultural life of the city.

Shankland told demonstrators this week that the budget deficit at the campus was 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, the Stevens Point Journal reported.

Chancellor Bernie Patterson challenged the idea that the proposal would turn the university into a technical college. “Doing nothing, keeping things as they are is not an option,” Patterson said.

Nicholas Hillman, an associate professor and educational policy analyst in the School of Education at UW-Madison, said the blue ribbon commission is a “very good idea.”

Such study commissions are standard practice in other states, he said. ”It’s exactly the kind role government should play, in terms of planning, and research of trends and practices, to help colleges around the state perform and help families have more access to more affordable quality education.”

And while Wisconsin politics is polarized by partisanship in most cases, Hillman suggested that a proposal to find ways to improve higher education could be a way to bring people together. Tennessee is one state, he said, where officials have stayed focused on a statewide education plan as control of the governor’s office and one chamber of the legislature passed from one party to another.

“People might find they are more in agreement than not,” Hillman said. “The idea of idea of having this type of blue ribbon panel also puts the issues in the public domain,” he said. “That could help defuse politics and build trust that is lacking.”

As proposed in the legislation, the commission membership would include: president of the UW System, four faculty and four academic staff members from UW System schools that have been identified as underserved or undergoing significant program change; four UW System students, one higher education expert, one workforce development expert, and four legislators.

Enumerated tasks also include: identifying system strengths and weaknesses; identifying demographic trends that will affect institutions of higher education; establishing a new funding structure or revenue streams; finding new ways to administer financial aid; studying the effectiveness of programs designed to make college accessible and the feasibility of a state program to provide debt-free college to all Wisconsin residents.

The bill was referred to the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. Its chair, Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, did not immediately return a message Friday seeking reaction to the proposed legislation.

Aside from extraordinary session and special session work, the Legislature is effectively done with its work for the 2017-18 session.