English chairman 'taken aback' by UW-Stevens Point plan to cut majors

By Keith Uhlig and Alan Hovorka, Stevens Point Journal

STEVENS POINT - A University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point proposal to eliminate 13 majors caught at least one of the affected department chairs by complete surprise, he said Tuesday.

UW-Stevens Point administrators on Monday said they plan to eliminate low-demand liberal arts degree programs, including English, history and political science. It is part of the college's efforts to address a projected deficit of $4.5 million over two years because of declining enrollment and lower tuition revenues.

Mike Williams, the chairman of the Department of English, said he had no idea that English would be on a list of potential cutbacks. 

"We're taken aback by the proposal. And it still is a proposal," Williams said. "Right now we have to marshal arguments that will convince the administration that the measures they have proposed are mistaken." 

When releasing the plan, university officials said that English majors for teacher certification would continue. But Williams said that under the state Department of Public Instruction's certification criteria, a person looking to become an English teacher has to have been an English major. "They just both have to exist, or both have to be eliminated," Williams said. "One depends directly on the other."

In addition to English, the programs that would be eliminated because of low enrollment are: American studies, art (but not graphic design), French, geography, geoscience, German, history (other than social science for teacher certification), music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology (but not the social work major) and Spanish.

The proposal has spurred State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, to join with the UW-Stevens Point Student Government Association in holding a campus town hall meeting from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on March 13 at the college's Dreyfus University Center Theater, 1015 Reserve St. The meeting will be "an open forum for students, faculty, staff and community members to share how the proposed cuts will impact their work, their studies, and our local workforce pipeline," according to a Shankland media release.

Some faculty members may face layoffs as the result of program cutbacks. The soonest any tenured teaching jobs would be eliminated is June 2020, the university said.

Officials say courses would continue to be taught in the fields targeted for elimination, and minors or certificates would be offered. Students enrolled in any discontinued major would be able to complete their degrees, officials said, including students who are enrolled for next fall.

In addition, the university would add eight bachelor's or advanced-degree programs:  aquaculture/aquaponics, captive wildlife, ecosystem design and remediation, environmental engineering, geographic information science, master of business administration, master of natural resources and doctor of physical therapy.

The moves tip the balance away from liberal arts degrees toward those more technical in nature.

That means the university's "emphasis is going to change significantly," Williams said. 

Degrees such as English, philosophy and political science offer students a firm grounding in critical thinking and communication skills that will serve them well in any field they enter, Williams said.

They "are the kind of majors that encourage the development of skills," he said. "And which prepare students for rapid career changes."

The university has developed a website title"Fork in the Road" that addresses the financial and educational challenges it faces.

Over the past four years, overall enrollment at the school has declined by 15 percent, from more than 9,600 students to just under 8,200 last fall. The website offers several reasons for that fall, including:

► A streamlining of general education requirements, which has increased the UWSP graduation rate so that students are leaving campus sooner than before.

► Shifting demographics in which there are fewer high school graduates looking to enter college.

► Deteriorating retention rates. About 74 percent of first-year students enroll in their second year at UWSP, down from a peak of 82 percent.

Greg Summers, the university's provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said a prime strategy to deal with the decreasing numbers of students and revenue dollars is to focus resources toward more popular majors.

Formal proposals that will detail projected numbers of job cuts and program eliminations and expansions will come after Aug. 1, Summers said.

One reason English was put on the list of potential cuts is that the number of its majors is decreasing. Williams said there are 169 students majoring in the program now, down from 260 six years ago.

Even so, Williams said UW-Stevens Point ranks fourth in its number of English majors among the institutions in the UW System, behind UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Eau Claire.

He also argues that English majors are a good deal for the university. The income the department brings in exceeds its costs, so English makes a profit.

"The English education program is one of the best in the state. We have 100 percent job placement. And we have 100 teachers in high schools across the state," Williams said. "They are in positions to recommend UWSP to their high school students. I don't necessarily believe that will happen anymore."

Williams has taught at UW-Stevens Point for about 30 years and decided over Christmas that he would retire.

"I feel like I dodged a bullet," he said.

But Williams said the news about the cutbacks still hurts.

"I have colleagues that feel their work is being denigrated by the administration," he said. "And it's very upsetting."