UW-Stevens Point proposal to cut, expand majors draws anger, concern at town hall session

By Alan Hovorka, Stevens Point Journal

STEVENS POINT - Community members, faculty and students at a public forum Tuesday voiced displeasure and anger at a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point proposal to cut 13 majors and shift resources toward 16 others. 

More than 150 people crammed into the Dreyfus University Center Theater for a campus town hall hosted by the UW-Stevens Point Student Government Association and state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.

In the nearly two-hour listening session, people expressed concerns that the proposal would reduce enrollment rather than increase it as the university intends, that it would cause lasting damage to Stevens Point’s culture and arts scene, and that UWSP administrators lacked transparency in the process of creating the plan.

Christine Koeller, a faculty associate at UW-Stevens Point in geographic information science, which would be added as a degree, said the proposal sends the wrong message to current and prospective students. It might raise questions about how employers will view these liberal arts degrees from UW-Stevens Point in the future, she said.

“It’s something that (students) will never forget happened,” Koeller said.

University administrators last week released a proposal to eliminate 13 liberal arts degree programs, including English, history and political science. The cuts of 13 majors and the additions or expansions of 16 majors are part of university efforts to deal with a projected deficit of $4.5 million through two years because of declining enrollment and lower tuition revenues.

Although there would be the elimination of major offerings, the university would cointinue to offer classes, minors and certificates in those disciplines.

Nick Schultz, spokeswoman for the university, said in an email that 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, she said. 

The proposal, if approved, would mark a shift by the university toward more technical or STEM-related areas, the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines that are considered in high demand in the workforce.

Stevens Point City Attorney Andrew Logan Beveridge, and others, raised questions about how the community will be able to attract people without culture.

“Art is a reason for living; extend that to the humanities,” he said.

Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza said that while he’s still weighing the facts about the proposal and meeting with university officials, on its surface it seems harsh.

Rick Christofferson, a 1981 political science and philosophy graduate of UW-Stevens Point, said the news of the proposal hit him and his family hard because of their roots in the area. He and his sister attended the university for liberal arts degrees. His father taught political science and was chairman of the department for nine years.

“I went through most of the stages of grief already and now I’m back to anger,” he said.

Christofferson, a member of the Portage County Democratic Party, also wondered what effect this will have on prospective students, if the university was setting itself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy of worsening enrollment and telling certain students they’re not welcome here.

At one point in the evening, an audience member asked if Chancellor Bernie Patterson or Provost Greg Summers were in the audience to respond to concerns. They were not, and this realization was followed by audience calls for more accountability and transparency.

Schultz said in an email that the Student Government Association, or SGA, and Shankland did not ask them to be at the event. 

Patterson and Summers spent four hours listening to student concerns at a March 8 SGA meeting and Summers has met with various departments and university governance committees, Schultz noted. The two will lead a campus forum for faculty and staff on March 15 and a student forum on March 19, she said.

Although some pointed their anger at the administration, Shankland said the underlying problems have come from Republicans in Madison, citing years of cutbacks and underfunding. 

“They’ve been dealt a difficult hand,” she said of the university leaders.

Shankland added that she would ultimately like to see the proposal walked back, citing the forum's near-uniform displeasure with the proposal.

Republican state Sen. Patrick Testin, who was not at the listening session Tuesday, advocated for everyone involved in discussions about the proposal to take a step back, review the numbers and understand that it’s just a proposal. Testin said cutbacks to the UW System have occurred under the watch of both parties. 

“I think there are some individuals trying to politicize this,” he said. “It does a disservice to the discussion and the university.”

Testin said the university needs to match degree offerings with economic demands in the job market. 

"I think the university needs to focus on its strengths," he said.

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

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.

Cuts and expansions

The 13 programs that would be eliminated because of low enrollment are:

American studies, art (but not graphic design), English (other than English for teacher certification), French, geography, geoscience, German, history (social science for teacher certification would continue), music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology (social work major would continue) and Spanish.

UW-Stevens Point proposes expanding eight academic programs as majors: chemical engineering, computer information systems, conservation law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management and marketing.

Another eight bachelor's or advanced-degree programs would be created:  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.