Guest Post: Jon Loomis on the Changing Idea in Wisconsin Higher Ed

The Western Wisconsin College of Hair Design and Mortuary Science ("Meeting Wisconsin’s Workforce Needs Since 2007!") is looking less funny now.


March 13, 2018

By Jon Loomis

Back in 2015, after state government passed another brutal cut to the University of Wisconsin system and eliminated tenure protections in all but name, I created a spoof Facebook page for a made-up institution called the Western Wisconsin College of Hair Design and Mortuary Science (our motto: Meeting Wisconsin’s Workforce Needs Since 2007!).  WWCHDMS also offered majors in diesel mechanics and private investigation, and planned to open a new School of Taxidermy in the near future.  It operated out of a strip mall.  Its mascot?  Crabs in a bucket. 

It was funny in its bitter little way because it parodied what conservatives in Wisconsin government seemed to want from their university system—basically, a network of low-cost vocational training centers, as opposed to what was then a system of thirteen more-or-less real-deal regional comprehensive universities, plus thirteen two-year colleges, and the flagship, PhD-granting research institution in Madison. 

It was funny until it wasn’t funny—until it became prophetic, until it became clear that the triple-whammy financial squeeze of massive cuts to public funding, a tuition freeze that’s been in place for five years and counting, and declining enrollment on many campuses would, in fact, summon that conservative vision into being, at least at some UW-system schools. 

This is the sad state of affairs at UW-Stevens Point, which, following a similar precedent established at UW-Superior last fall, has announced that it will eliminate thirteen supposedly under-enrolled majors, including English, History, Political Science, Art, Geography, and foreign languages, and replace them with majors in things like Fire Science, Aquaculture, Captive Wildlife(?), Conservation Law Enforcement, and Marketing (I’m not making this up), with layoffs of tenured-in-name faculty imminent.  In a fit of Midwestern guilelessness he may live to regret if the regional accreditors get wind of it, UW-SP’s provost has even said, “The simple financial reality that our institution is in is we cannot afford to be the same kind of comprehensive university that we've been in the past.” 

Taking a cue from UW System president Ray Cross’s open contempt for shared governance, administration at both UW-Superior and UW-Stevens Point crafted these radical policy changes without any apparent input from faculty, relying instead on shared governance groups to do the heavy lifting of implementation—shared governance ex post facto.  To paraphrase a favorite meme from The Princess Bride: I do not think “shared governance” means what they think it means. 

Given the stark fiscal and ideological realities of life in a red state (hey, Wisconsin was still progressive when I moved here), it’s likely that other UW system schools will eventually follow suit in abandoning the liberal arts in favor of more allegedly workforce-friendly, supposedly market-driven program arrays: if UW-Superior and UW-Stevens Point have been swept into a Charybdis-like academic death spiral, can UWs Parkside, Platteville, Whitewater, etc., be saved? 

And what of principle?  What of the founding mission of Wisconsin’s regional comprehensives, which, we once believed, was to bring actual, high quality, liberal-arts-based higher education to every corner of the state, from Wisconsin’s industrial south, to the great Northwoods, to the shores of Lake Superior, at bargain-basement rates—roughly the same kinds of educational opportunities enjoyed by the elite moneyed classes at Ivy League schools and the big R1s, albeit with fewer amenities.     

That’s what we aspired to, in any case, but those days are evidently long gone at Superior and Point, and perhaps just a quaint holdover from a distant, more humane past at the rest of the UW system’s regional four-year campuses.  For those campuses, the future, assuming there’s going to be one, is a lot more likely to resemble the Western Wisconsin College of Hair Design and Mortuary Science than Princeton or Yale. 

In my view, the goal of a liberal arts education (and yes, can we please put the arts back in “liberal education?”), is to help students make the most of their human potential, in whatever field or career or way of living they choose to pursue.  Merely preparing students to join the work force is, to my way of thinking, a worthy,  if grimly utilitarian, but secondary goal.  But this is not the thinking of the right-wing billionaire industrialists who currently control Wisconsin’s politics, and by extension its public institutions.  What they want—and here I’m paraphrasing the great George Carlin—is not a nation of critical thinkers who are smart enough to figure out how badly the system is screwing them, which is what you can do if you’ve had a decent liberal arts education—they want obedient workers.  And that’s what UW-Stevens Point has now agreed to give them.

In the end, the choices that are being made by the people who run the UW system and its campuses are driven by a narrow and punitive right-wing ideology.  It was a political choice to cut the system’s funding.  It was a political choice to freeze tuition.  The resulting and now inescapably evident decline in the quality of the educational opportunities the system is able to offer the young people of Wisconsin is also ultimately a choice, made intentionally by the state’s political leaders, and endorsed, more or less, by Wisconsin’s electorate.  My hope is that the virus that’s infected Point and Superior will not spread to the UW system’s other eleven regional comprehensives, but I fear that it will in time, assuming the current political environment persists.  Barring significant change in that political environment, those majors in mortuary science, hair design, private investigation and taxidermy are headed our way, for real this time, as we dutifully strive to meet Wisconsin’s workforce needs.


Jon Loomis is an education dispensing unit at the Western Wisconsin College of Hair Design and Mortuary Science, and an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His most recent book is The Mansion of Happiness, from Oberlin College Press.


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