Students at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point on March 21 protest the school’s proposal to drop 13 majors — most of them in the liberal arts. (Ross Vetterkind)

Several hundred students at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point staged a Save Our Majors protest against a proposal by the school’s administration to drop 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences — including English and history — and add programs deemed to provide technical skills wanted in the job market.

The students staged a demonstration on campus Wednesday, and leaders of the action presented a letter to the administration seeking the creation of a task force with representation from each college to create “a counter proposal” that could be presented to the campus community by May 3. Student leaders said they are now talking to administrators.

The student letter (see full text below) said:

For years, the legislature in Wisconsin has perpetuated the belief that education is only valuable when it leads to specific career paths. We were disheartened to see the attitude of our academic affairs conform to that belief. As Pointers we have felt empowered by building our reputation in the UW System as a school that provides a supportive community and holistic education. By responding to the structural deficit with eliminating humanities departments we risk shifting the culture of our campus to one that no longer supports the Pointer culture.

The school is one of 11 comprehensive campuses in the University of Wisconsin system, long seen as one of the country’s great public institutions of higher education. Stevens Point has seen declining enrollment in recent years as well as shrinking tuition revenue and funding from the state.

In 2015, Gov. Scott Walker (R) successfully sought from the legislature a $250 million cut from the tuition-reliant university system — an 11 percent reduction. That was on top of funding cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars during the previous decade. Legislators also removed the principles of tenure and shared school governance from state law, thus giving administrators more power to lay off tenured faculty and unilaterally make decisions in which faculty and students once participated.

Stevens Point leaders told the community in a March 5 statement that they face a $4.5 million deficit over two years, and that they want to create new majors that “have demonstrated value and demand in the region,” including marketing, graphic design, fire science and computer information systems.

Many students, faculty and alumni oppose the administration’s plan, saying it violates what is known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” a more-than-century-old mission for the university system embedded in the state code that says:

The mission of the system is to develop human resources, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

Walker tried — unsuccessfully — to change the wording of the mission in 2015, dropping “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” That move reflected a growing push among conservatives to steer public colleges and universities away from the teaching of liberal arts and more toward workplace skills.

The problem, as critics have noted, is that the workplace changes quickly and the kinds of skills that employers desire are some of the very ones that students learn in liberal arts education, such as the ability to think creatively and work with others.

These are the majors that would be cut in the administration’s plan, which must be approved by a campus governance committee as well as the University of Wisconsin system’s chancellor and Board of Regents:

• 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

Here is the students’ letter:

To Chancellor Patterson, Provost Summers, Interim Dean Yonke, Chair of Common Counsel Mennigen, Student Government Association:

The Wisconsin Idea signifies a general principle: that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom. We believe that in order to uphold this idea the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point has a responsibility to offer central Wisconsin residents a choice.

On March 5th, 2018, the academic affairs office proposed the discontinuation of 13 majors and the expansion of 16 programs. We, as students and members of the central Wisconsin community, oppose this response to the budget deficit. These disciplines and the pursuit of these majors are essential to the identity of a liberal education and are the foundation to the pride of being a Pointer.

For years, the legislature in Wisconsin has perpetuated the belief that education is only valuable when it leads to specific career paths. We were disheartened to see the attitude of our academic affairs conform to that belief. As Pointers we have felt empowered by building our reputation in the UW System as a school that provides a supportive community and holistic education. By responding to the structural deficit with eliminating humanities departments we risk shifting the culture of our campus to one that no longer supports the Pointer culture.

Our strategic plan, as derived from “A Partnership for Thriving Communities,” states that we strive “to make our university a model of a thriving community.” This language was chosen by UWSP to encapsulate our values and our vision for the community. In our eyes, a thriving community is one that recognizes that the elimination of these 13 majors is a greater disservice to the marginalized groups who seek an education at UWSP because of the current demographics reflected within the faculty staff and students in those departments.

We understand that we cannot remain the same kind of comprehensive university that we have been in the past. We urge academic affairs, common council and student government to reconsider the extent to which this proposal would affect the campus as a whole through a relationship that encourages communication between community, faculty, staff and students.

We cannot walk this path together without a shared vision of the future. As partners in our thriving community, we call upon academic affairs, common council and student government to take immediate action by forming a task force with representation from each college to create a counter proposal that will be presented to the campus and community by May 3rd. This proposal should maintain majors currently offered in the humanities and specifically outline inclusion of the humanities core within the general education program, and researched evaluation of the impact on inclusion and diversity.

Sincerely,

Gigi Stahl

Olivia De Valk

Patrick Martin-Smithwick

Jaclyn Weitzel

Justin Seis

Valerie Landowski

Connor Schoelzel

Marlo Fields

Alexis Neeley