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A University of Wisconsin campus pushes plan to drop 13 majors — including English, history and philosophy

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point held a forum on March 15 to discuss a proposal to drop 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences. (Video: University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point)

(Note: An earlier version dropped part of the university’s full statement because of coding errors and said the school faced a $4.5 million deficit over two days rather than two years. Both are fixed.)

The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has proposed dropping 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences — including English, philosophy, history, sociology and Spanish — while adding programs with “clear career pathways” as a way to address declining enrollment and a multimillion-dollar deficit.

Students and faculty members have reacted with surprise and concern to the news, which is being portrayed by the school’s administration as a path to regain enrollment and provide new opportunities to students. Critics see something else: a waning commitment to liberal arts education and a chance to lay off faculty under new rules that weakened tenure.

Students are planning a sit-in at the campus administration building on Wednesday in a demonstration called Save Our Majors. The Stevens Point Journal said students will then deliver a list of demands and requests to school officials. The school is one of  11 comprehensive campuses in the University of Wisconsin system.

The plan to cut the liberal arts and humanities majors (see full list below) is in line with a failed attempt by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015 to secretly change the mission of the respected university system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code  — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

The push away from liberal arts and toward workplace skills is championed by conservatives who see many four-year colleges and universities as politically correct institutions that graduate too many students without practical job skills — but with liberal political views.

How Gov. Walker tried to quietly change the mission of the University of Wisconsin

The administration at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point recently issued a statement detailing the plan, which still must be approved by a campus governance committee as well as the University of Wisconsin system’s chancellor and Board of Regents.

It said that the school faces a $4.5 million deficit over two years because declining enrollment has led to lower tuition revenue, and proposes adding or expanding 16 programs in areas “with high-demand career paths as a way to maintain and increase enrollment.” Last fall, the school saw an enrollment decrease of 5.4 percent from the year before. That was on top of a 6.8 percent drop the previous year.

“To fund this future investment, resources would be shifted from programs with lower enrollment, primarily in the traditional humanities and social sciences,” the school statement says. “Although some majors are proposed to be eliminated, courses would continue to be taught in these fields, and minors or certificates will be offered.”

Programs that would be expanded, which “have demonstrated value and demand in the region,” include marketing, management, graphic design, fire science and computer information systems.

The student newspaper, the Pointer, quoted Samantha Stein, a 2017 graduate, as opposing the plan. Stein, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and had a minor in biomedical writing through the English department, said:

“The shift away from the humanities and from the opening of one’s mind to other cultures, languages, the arts, political science and so much more is one that universities will not return from, and we are giving up what a college education is all about if we do this.”

Inside Higher Education quoted Michael Williams, chair of English at Stevens Point, as saying, “Well, you can imagine the mood in the College of Letters and Science, which houses the humanities.”

The Republican-dominated legislature in Wisconsin weakened tenure in 2015, removing it from state law. Lawmakers also changed the traditional power-sharing arrangement at public universities that had long given students, faculty and staff an important role in governance, instead giving more power to administrators and the governor-appointed Regents. The Regents then set new policies that made it easier for public universities to lay off tenured faculty.

Here’s the school’s full message:

The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point outlined a plan today to address fiscal challenges by shifting resources to invest in areas with growth potential.
UW-Stevens Point faces a deficit of $4.5 million over two years because of declining enrollment and lower tuition revenue. It proposes adding or expanding 16 programs in areas with high-demand career paths as a way to maintain and increase enrollment.
To fund this future investment, resources would be shifted from programs with lower enrollment, primarily in the traditional humanities and social sciences. Although some majors are proposed to be eliminated, courses would continue to be taught in these fields, and minors or certificates will be offered.
This repositioning is necessary because of declining financial resources, demographic changes with fewer students in K-12 schools and rising competition among public and private universities, said Greg Summers, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. A significant increase in graduation rates recently has also contributed to overall enrollment declines.
A broad, liberal arts education continues to be critical, UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Patterson said in messages to students, faculty and staff today. “Importantly, we remain committed to ensuring every student who graduates from UW-Stevens Point is thoroughly grounded in the liberal arts, as well as prepared for a successful career path. It is critical our students learn to communicate well, solve problems, think critically and creatively, be analytical and innovative, and work well in teams. This is the value of earning a bachelor’s degree.”
UW-Stevens Point proposes expanding academic programs that have demonstrated value and demand in the region, including:
• Chemical Engineering
• Computer Information Systems
• Conservation Law Enforcement
• Finance
• Fire Science
• Graphic Design
• Management
• Marketing
These programs have existed as options and would expand to majors. In addition, new bachelor’s (or advanced) degree programs are proposed in:
• 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
The recommendations recognize a growing preference among students for majors with clear career pathways, Summers said. “UW-Stevens Point is committed to strengthening our academic offerings while improving our liberal arts core to ensure students graduate with the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in the future.”
To create programs that meet the evolving needs of students, UW-Stevens Point proposes shifting resources from programs where fewer students are enrolled. Discontinuing the following programs is recommended:
• American Studies
• Art – Graphic Design will continue as a distinct major
• English – English for teacher certification will continue
• French
• Geography
• Geoscience
• German
• History – Social Science for teacher certification will continue
• Music Literature
• Philosophy
• Political Science
• Sociology — Social Work major will continue
• Spanish
Students enrolled in any major that is eventually discontinued will have the opportunity to complete their degrees. This includes students who enroll in fall 2018. Courses would continue to be taught in these fields. Minors in English, Art, History and Philosophy are among those continuing.
Additional programs in humanities and social sciences that have clear career pathways will provide opportunities to major in liberal arts fields, Summers said.
The proposal to discontinue programs must be reviewed by a campus governance committee, then the chancellor and UW System Board of Regents. Because possible program elimination may result in the layoff of some tenured faculty members, a new UW Board of Regents policy will be followed. This process is expected to begin in August. If a reduction in tenured faculty positions is recommended, cuts would occur no sooner than June 2020.
Summers described program discontinuation as difficult, painful and necessary. “If we accept the need for change, and we confront and solve the financial issues currently facing the institution, we can create a new identity for the regional public university. UW-Stevens Point can move forward with fiscal stability, new opportunities to build programs and grow enrollment, and renewed capacity to improve our service to the students and communities of central and northern Wisconsin, which are complex, diverse and ever changing.”