By Alan Hovorka, Stevens Point Journal
MADISON – University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students and others marched on the UW Board of Regents offices in Madison on Wednesday, protesting proposed cuts to majors and demanding action by the board and lawmakers.
Protesters held a press conference inside the state Capitol then trudged and chanted through a heavy snowfall to the UW-Madison campus to complete their demonstration. The protest followed backlash stemming from a proposal to cut 13 majors at UW-Stevens Point and 25 programs at UW-Superior.
Both were efforts to address looming budget deficits at those campuses, which administrators have said are a result of declining enrollment, a state-ordered freeze on tuition, and a reduction in state funding over several years.
UW-Stevens Point administrators, facing a $4.5 million projected deficit over two years, also said it's important to shift resources to majors with growing demand by students and the workforce.
Organizers called the Madison demonstration “Do Your Job: Protect the UW,” and read and delivered 26 letters to the regents and system administrators from students, alumni and faculty, as well as their own letter of intent demanding action by the board.
Valerie Landowski, a UW-Stevens Point graduate and a leader of the demonstration, said the integrity of the UW System is at stake. She graduated a with degree in political science, one of the majors UW-Stevens Point proposed cutting.
“We demand to be a part of the decision-making process, which’ll determine the fate of our state and our desire to live, work, raise families and contribute to our communities for generations to come,” Landowski said.
In all, the small group of protesters sought to sound the alarm and to “reclaim the UW.” They want the state Legislature to "fund the tuition freeze" — essentially replace the revenue that universities were unable to generate through tuition increases because of state law — among other requests meant to avert the types of cuts facing Stevens Point and Superior.
"UW-Superior was the first campus to manifest these cuts, and now it’s Stevens Point," Marlo Fields, a UW-Stevens Point history graduate, said. "Tomorrow it will be Oshkosh, River Falls, Parkside, until the UW System is a barren shell of itself."
Fields, whose major could be cut at UW-Stevens Point, said the budget and major eliminations are signs that the Wisconsin Idea — the UW System’s guiding principle — is being lost.
Wednesday's action also came amid a national focus on UW schools, especially at Stevens Point. Observers have begun to look to it as a proxy for the battle for higher education in the United States, with some pointing to the proposed changes in majors as a sign of things to come across the country.
Protesters also voiced concerns that budget and major cuts will especially harm people of color, women, nontraditional students and people with less economic means.
“I could not be an English major today if my options were UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee,” said Olivia De Valk, a senior at UW-Stevens Point. “As a first-generation college student, I would not have been able to afford it.”
Protesters also requested that regents and legislators support a blue ribbon commission proposed by state Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Stevens Point Democrat who has been openly critical of the UWSP proposal. The commission would seek to address systemic issues facing UW schools.
Four UW System administrators met the protesters during the demonstration. They accepted the letters and said they would share them with the regents.
Protesters received support Wednesday from the American Association of University Professors of Wisconsin, which called on the UW-Stevens Point administration to withdraw its proposal to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors and expand into 16 technical or STEM majors.
The protest coincided with a UW-Stevens Point Student Government Association state Legislature lobbying day. Students met throughout the day Wednesday with legislators to discuss issues such as the effects of a state-mandated tuition freeze, state funding for UW schools, and K-12 teacher retention.
UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson, in his own statement Wednesday, said the students' activism is an extension of the university's culture.
"We ground our students in critical and creative thinking, problem solving and civic engagement," Patterson said, and called the lobbying and protests "a natural outcome of a quality education."
UW System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis echoed Patterson’s sentiment on civic engagement and noted that UW-Stevens Point has not submitted a formal, final proposal for the regents to approve.
The UWSP proposal could lead to faculty layoffs, administrators said, but details on those job cuts wouldn't be known until Aug. 1 at the earliest.
Cuts and expansions
► The 13 majors UW-Stevens Point would eliminate are: American studies, art (but not graphic design), English (other than English for teacher certification), French, German, Spanish, geography, geoscience, history (other than social science for teacher certification), music literature, philosophy, political science and sociology (other than the social work major).
► UW-Stevens Point proposes to expand eight programs as majors: chemical engineering, computer information systems, conservation law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management and marketing.
►The campus also would create eight new bachelor's degrees or advanced degrees: aquaculture/aquaponics, captive wildlife, ecosystem design and remediation, environmental engineering, geographic information science, master of business administration, master of natural resources, doctor of physical therapy.