Cuts Reversed at Stevens Point

Wisconsin campus that became the poster child for gutting liberal arts disciplines won't make those cuts after all.

April 11, 2019
 

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point said its 2018 Point Forward plan to scrap 13 majors was an opportunity to be more nimble. Faculty members, meanwhile, petitioned to remove their chancellor and provost and asked if Stevens Point could remain a true university without core liberal arts fields such as history and foreign languages.

At the same time, professors across the University of Wisconsin system looked at Stevens Point as a test case. How would recent changes to state law and system policies making it easier to cut programs and faculty members be exercised in practice? And would other campuses follow? Even beyond the state, the university's proposed cuts attracted attention and opposition from professors and academic groups.

Now -- after already taking seven majors off the chopping block, leaving just six -- Stevens Point is cutting nothing. Chancellor Bernie Patterson announced the development Wednesday in a campus memo saying that the “curricular proposals related to Point Forward have been resolved.”

Patterson said that other budget reductions across campus, along with resignations and retirements, eliminated the need for layoffs. Department-level discussions regarding the futures of French, German, art, history, geography and geoscience nevertheless continue, he said, but none will be cut.

“The resolution of these curricular discussions marks another important milestone for Stevens Point as we seek to prioritize student and regional needs through innovative programs while also reducing our spending to stabilize the university’s budget,” Patterson wrote. “These conversations have tested our system of shared governance, but shared governance has served us well, and we have reached constructive and collaborative solutions.”

Faculty members -- while happy to avoid cuts -- didn’t quite share Patterson’s tone.

“It’s great that we’re saving the majors,” said Andy Felt, professor of mathematics and president of campus's American Federation of Teachers-affiliated faculty union (which does not have collective bargaining rights). “It’s too bad the administration dropped those plans on the campus like bombs, rather than building consensus. We’ve been through a lot as a campus and have lost a lot of great people.”

The Wisconsin system has indeed lost many faculty members since those controversial changes regarding tenure and program continuances. And the year of uncertainty at Stevens Point didn’t help from a retention perspective -- even if some of those departures may have helped the university’s immediate financial picture.

Patterson urged that the university should keep “developing and transforming our academic offerings to meet the changing needs of central Wisconsin.” Stevens Point recently announced new programs at its Wausau and Marshfield campuses, he said -- both formerly separate community colleges -- as well as a new M.B.A.

The university is also in talks with other system institutions to “bring their degrees to our branch campuses,” he said. New degrees such as aquaponics and environmental engineering are also in development at Stevens Point.

Changing Plans

The university initially planned to nix American studies, art (excluding graphic design), English (excluding English for teacher certification), French, geography, geoscience, German, history (excluding social science for teacher certification), music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish.

Provost Greg Summers said at the time at the university based its top-down plan on what Stevens Point was already known for and on what incoming students declare as their intended majors.

At the same time, the university planned to invest in what it called “growth programs,” including aquaculture, ecosystem design and remediation, environmental engineering, geographic information science, master of business administration, master of natural resources, and doctor of physical therapy.

The cuts weren’t about financial exigency, but rather Stevens Point trying to position itself as a kind of destination campus ahead of projected enrollment declines across Wisconsin. State budget cuts also factored in. But many professors doubted whether fundamentally changing the university’s program offerings was the right approach.

Amid campus backlash and attempts to otherwise reduce the university’s budget, Stevens Point eventually backed away from cuts to American studies, English, music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish. But the fate of the other programs remained unclear.

Stevens Point’s announcement says that French and German will remain, in “hope that faculty members in our world languages and literatures programs can join colleagues from partner [system] institutions to offer these degrees in a collaborative format.”

History is now safe, too -- but with a revised curriculum that includes a “strengthened” social science teaching option for future educators. A nonteaching option also will focus on integrating historical research, analysis and writing across contexts. The department also will become more of a general education hub.

Geography and geoscience going forward will be combined to create a new geospatial science program focused on preparation for careers that apply geospatial technologies to address social and environmental issues.

As for art, faculty members in art and design and interior architecture voted to form a new School of Design, with a new major in integrative studio practice.

Jennifer Collins, professor of political science and chair of the campus’s Faculty Council, called Wednesday’s news “excellent.”

Asked about what role shared governance played, Collins said the outcome is due in “no small part to the arduous work over the past year by faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members who spoke up and raised questions … and spent countless hours vetting the leadership’s proposals.”

One of the main critiques of the plan, she said, is that it wouldn’t solve Stevens Point’s budget woes and could possibly make them worse. So the faculty is “gratified that the chancellor has listened to and taken seriously the voices of stakeholders, and the work done by numerous committees.”

Both Collins and Felt said they’re hopeful that campus groups can continue to work cooperatively and collaboratively going forward. Specifically, Collins said, in “a positive way that positions [the university] to continue to serve the students and communities of central Wisconsin and beyond well into the future.”

Mick Veum, chair of physics, said via email that the "simple answer" was to why the proposal was pulled is "because there were enough people leaving 'voluntarily' to make the nuclear option unnecessary (period)." 

The more "nuanced answer is that the governance process bought time to find other solutions, and the proposal was not well received and exposed as poorly argued through governance, which incentivized finding alternatives," he added.

Noel Radomski, managing director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, has followed the Stevens Point case and said late Wednesday that it appeared as if “several things finally coalesced.” Many faculty and staff members either accepted voluntary retirement or found jobs elsewhere, reducing the budget deficit, he said, and governance leaders -- especially professors -- spent “an inordinate amount of time” in committees. Those leaders are now “reaping the benefits of looking at trends, asking tough questions, identifying and prioritizing options, and advancing recommendations,” he said.

Lately, especially, Radomski noted, faculty members and deans went beyond “the status quo and incremental solutions.” The curricular innovations are based on a “strong focus on maintaining and enhancing instructional quality,” and many of the new and modified degree programs are “likely to be more interdisciplinary, which follows trends in research practices” at Stevens Point.

Radomski also credited Patterson and Summers for “walking a delicate tightrope of not pursuing top-down decision making and encouraging a collegial decision-making process.”

Wisconsin has a strong history of shared governance, he noted, but the last several years have tested it.

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