Rep. Katrina Shankland proposes Blue Ribbon Commission on UW campuses

By Mark Treinen, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

MADISON – State Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point proposed Thursday that the Legislature create a commission to address challenges facing Wisconsin's public universities, in the wake of a contentious proposal to eliminate 13 liberal arts majors at UW-Stevens Point.

Shankland introduced legislation that would create a 19-member Blue Ribbon Commission including University of Wisconsin System faculty, staff, students, legislators and higher education and workforce development experts.

The panel would investigate whether to establish a program for free college tuition for Wisconsin residents, as well as the overall goals of higher education, strengths and weaknesses of the UW System, changing demographic trends, access to financial aid and workforce retention programs.

Shankland's call for a commission comes a day after about 300 demonstrators staged a sit-in of UW-Stevens Point's administrative offices. During the occupation of Old Main, protestors delivered a list of demands to university officials that requests they create a task force that would produce a counterproposal to the public by May 3. 

Shankland, a Democrat, has been an outspoken critic of UW-Stevens Point's proposal to eliminate majors such as political science, English and history and shift more resources to science-based and technical degrees. She has placed part of the blame on GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Scott Walker for stripping away state aid for UW System schools over several years.

Under her bill, the state would appoint faculty and staff members to the commission from campuses that "are underserved or undergoing significant programmatic changes." She noted that in addition to UW-Stevens Point's proposed changes in majors to address a $4.5 billion two-year deficit, UW-Superior recently announced it is facing its own $4.5 million budget deficit and the suspension of 25 programs.

“Years of budget cuts, unfunded tuition freezes, and politicians meddling with the UW System have created significant challenges for our colleges and universities across Wisconsin," Shankland said in a news release announcing her legislation.

"Students deserve to have the same opportunities that their parents and grandparents had," she said. "The promise of the American Dream is falling out of reach for too many."

UW-Stevens Point administrators have pointed to a variety of factors driving the proposal to restructure the curriculum, beyond state funding cuts: There are fewer high school graduates to draw from, so enrollment and tuition revenues are declining; students are increasingly shifting to majors in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines; and the workforce demands and opportunities are changing for college graduates.

UWSP officials also noted that the school still would offer liberal arts and humanities courses, even though some of the degrees in those fields would be eliminated.

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.