UW-Stevens Point backs away from controversial plan to cut several liberal arts majors

By Devi Shastri and Alan Hovorka, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

STEVENS POINT - After putting majors like history and geography on the chopping block — and in the process drawing national attention to the future of liberal arts education — the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point announced Wednesday it was changing plans.

The university had enough faculty retirements and resignations in the months following the November proposal that it didn't need to outright cut the programs, Chancellor Bernie Patterson told the Journal Sentinel.

However, it will adjust them.

The initial proposal, dubbed "Point Forward," was a response to the challenge of a growing deficit and declining enrollment. Thirteen majors were identified for cutting or retooling.

That announcement sparked outrage from many students and faculty, many of whom saw the devaluation of liberal arts majors as a slap in the face — and a step away from the roots of higher education.

In November, the number of majors facing the ax narrowed to six. In February, Patterson announced 14 faculty resignations and retirements, and in turn dropped the possible cuts again. At the time, h

UW-Stevens Point backs away from controversial plan to cut several liberal arts majors

istory, geography, geoscience and two art concentrations (two-dimensional and three-dimensional) still hung in the balance.

Now, those cuts are essentially off the table. However, Patterson said the university needed to keep adapting the majors. To that end, it is launching several new programs on its branch campuses in Wausau and Marshfield, as well as on the main campus in Stevens Point.

"Any business person would tell you that you can't always cut your way to prosperity," Patterson said.

UW-Stevens Point will restructure its history major to have a teaching partnership with the School of Education. Students who don't want to teach can pursue courses that would help them use their history major in public policy, nonprofit management, business and healthcare careers, the chancellor announced.

Geoscience and geography will combine into a geospatial science program.

A new School of Design will replace the two art concentrations. The school will aim to pull subjects including graphic design, studio art and interior architecture under one umbrella, increasing collaboration between disciplines.

Faculty across the university continue to work on developing the new programs for the coming school year.

"Our processes have worked well. It certainly has tested our shared governance system, but shared governance has served us well," Patterson said.


University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson proposed eliminating six humanities majors at the school. University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

A chance for innovation

In November, the university projected an $8 million structural budget deficit in a scenario in which its enrollment dropped below 7,000. At that time, Patterson acknowledged that UW-Stevens Point can no longer be "all things to all people."

The new plan still tries to advance some of the school's strengths, adding a new masters option in the School of Natural Sciences, a new doctorate in physical therapy and a new finance, marketing and management major.

The Wausau and Marshfield campuses will explore programs for students to earn a bachelor's degree in three years, saving students time and money.

The new Center for Critical Thinking, first proposed in Patterson's plan in November, will pair faculty with students in the classroom and with area businesses and local K-12 schools and non-profits.

"We have business executives talking to us now about how they can become more competitive in what they do by having their staff and employees think more critically about their work," Patterson said.

By investing in programs that span disciplines, campuses and industries, Patterson said, UW-Stevens Point could serve as a model for schools across the state and country that face similar financial challenges.

Stevens Point should reach students beyond high school graduates, including veterans, people who are coming back to complete a degree, and working professionals looking for added credentials, Patterson said.

"With the strong economy that we have, which is a great thing, more people are going to work than are going to school. That's a national trend," Patterson said. "This means that we also have to be thinking about needs beyond the high school graduates coming to us at age 18 or 19."

UW System President Ray Cross told the Journal Sentinel that the future at UW-Stevens Point is bright, despite the "anxiety and turmoil."

"What's happened here I think is very positive and it's not often understood and it's difficult to go through. But the process worked," Cross said. "It was deliberative. It was inclusive. It was painful, but the results is we've seen a campus that's more engaged with the community and more engaged internally."

Faculty look to a path forward

UW-Stevens Point History Department Chair Lee Willis said the discussions following the "Point Forward" proposal required his team to make the case for keeping their major.

"It’s really great news for faculty and particularly students," Willis said. "I think (students) will be excited as anyone that (the history major is) here to stay."


The prospect of cutting the history major emerged as one of the flashpoints in a national conversation about the future of  liberal arts and humanities at the nation's universities.

The refocused history major means UW-Stevens Point has a chance to be more intentional in connecting history majors to jobs, he said.

"One thing we want to do with the revision of our majors is to make clear how versatile a history major is and all the things you can do with it," Willis said.

Mark Tolstedt, a UW-Stevens Point communications professor, characterized the announcement as a double-edged sword. It's a positive, Tolstedt said, because majors aren't being eliminated -- and more faculty with them. ”It’s also a negative because that’s only in place because so many people have left this campus," he said.

Tolstedt, who initially served on the consultative committee reviewing the university’s November plan, said departments must now turn to restructuring, Tolstedt said.

“We’re trying to pick up the pieces of where programs lost people. In my program, we will be down to 10 faculty. In 2011 we had 17. So, how do we restructure our curriculum? What kind of change is coming as a result of that? That’s hard to say,” Tolstedt said. “I think what it really comes down to is how are faculty going to be able to offer degree programs for our students and what is that going to look like?”

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said she is glad to hear the university is looking to the future.

"For over a year, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members have expressed thoughtful concerns and scrutiny in response to the administration's Point Forward proposals," Shankland said in a statement. "While I believe they should have been brought into the discussion prior to the proposal garnering national attention, I'm pleased that their poignant feedback was heard."

Mary Bowman, UW-Stevens Point common council chair and English professor, said the university hopes to have an outline or blueprint of what the reorganization could look like by the end of the semester.

Bowman said the announcement brought a sense of relief to campus.

“We didn’t know where we were going to end up,” she said.