Facing backlash from students, faculty and alumni over a plan to drop 13 liberal arts majors, leaders of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point have directed a campus committee to draw up an alternative, according to Provost Greg Summers.
The school recently publicized a plan to drop English, history, philosophy and 10 other liberal arts majors. It would also add programs, such as management and marketing, that some see as being more in line with workplace needs — even though many employers say that they seek out liberal arts majors because of key skills they learn, such as problem-solving and critical thinking.
Authorities said the proposal — which must be approved by a campus governance committee and by the University of Wisconsin system’s chancellor and Board of Regents — is intended to help stem a drop in enrollment and a multimillion-dollar deficit. They say liberal arts are not being abandoned but that the 21st century demands students enroll in different areas of study than in the past.
Opponents of the plan — which took years to develop — say it demonstrates a declining commitment to liberal arts studies and that it violates the “Wisconsin Idea.” That’s the more than century-old mission for the university system embedded in the state code that calls for the system to “search for truth,” discover and apply knowledge throughout society by “developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose.”
They also say the budget deficit was caused in large measure by major funding cuts imposed by the Republican-led state legislature.
Stevens Point 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. Students protested last week and demanded the school create a new task force to develop an alternative proposal, with representatives of all the constituencies that would be affected.
Summers said creating a new task force was not feasible and so school officials directed the existing Academic Affairs Committee — which was not involved in the drafting of the controversial plan — to develop an alternative to address the deficit and under-enrollment by early May. The community, he said, would consider it along with the original.
“If there is a better proposal, we should consider it,” said Summers, a historian. “We debate, we argue and we refine, and that is the process that is going to unfold.”
He said he believes “that lots of folks are misunderstanding the nature of the proposal.”
The university’s plan calls for these majors to be cut: 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) and Spanish.
These undergraduate majors would be added: chemical engineering, computer information systems, conservation law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management and marketing.
Summers pushed back against criticism that the school was short-shrifting liberal arts, saying the disciplines that were losing majors would still be taught, and that students still had to fulfill liberal arts requirements to graduate.
“Many of the degrees that would be added have names that sound very technical but are broad degrees that let our graduates go out and pivot,” he said. He noted, for example, that fire science isn’t about students “necessarily going to fight fires.” He said the degree will also teach students about wildlife and habitat management to prevent fires, and wouldn’t be “narrowly circumscribed” by the name of the major.
Critics don’t think they are misunderstanding anything. Stephen J. Piotrowski graduated from Stevens Point in 1977 and was the recipient of the school’s Albertson Memorial Award. Piotrowski said he had told school officials he was planning to leave part of his estate to Stevens Point, but has changed his mind. In a letter to Chancellor Bernie Patterson, he wrote:
“I recently received the announcement of your plan to destroy the liberal arts program at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, in the name of efficiency. I began attending UW-SP upon my return from service as an infantryman in Vietnam, back when it was still called WSU-Stevens Point. I was troubled and confused by the war and the politics of the time. The knowledge I gained majoring in philosophy, sociology and political science, departments all scheduled for destruction, allowed me to find perspective. The knowledge and critical thinking skills I learned in the liberal arts aided me in a long and rewarding career helping veterans throughout our state. I’m horrified that you’ve joined the anti-intellectual crowd that currently holds sway in our country as is shown by your plans.
Here’s the full letter:
Bernie L. Patterson, Chancellor
2100 Main Street, Suite 134,
Stevens Point, WI 54481-3897
Dear Chancellor Patterson:
I recently received the announcement of your plan to destroy the Liberal Arts program at my Alma Mater, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, in the name of efficiency. I began attending UW-SP upon my return from service as an Infantryman in Vietnam, back when it was still called WSU-Stevens Point. I was troubled and confused by the war and the politics of the time. The knowledge I gained majoring in Philosophy, Sociology and Political Science, Departments all scheduled for destruction, allowed me to find perspective. The knowledge and critical thinking skills I learned in the Liberal Arts aided me in a long and rewarding career helping veterans throughout our state. I’m horrified that you’ve joined the anti-intellectual crowd that currently holds sway in our country as is shown by your plans.
While the plan to expand the UW-Stevens Point’s offerings in various science and Natural Resource fields is a good move, doing so at the expense of the basic mission of the University is outrageous. The very term University derives from the Latin universitas ‘the whole’. To produce students who will be educated in the ‘whole’ of any subject, you must maintain the whole of an educational institution. While many in political leadership today believe that the value of a liberal arts education is overblown, it has seldom been more vital to our future.
The forces pushing for conformist thinking, simple solutions to complex problems and an educational system that is primarily a technical school for business and industry, cannot be allowed to destroy our places of learning. What good is it to know the details of a chemical process if you do not know how mankind moved from making fire to making rockets. The founders of our nation were successful because they were well read in philosophy, political theory, social theory and the great works of literature. It is this broad base of knowledge that allows mankind’s continued advancement and success.
Personnel directors know that except for some very limited technical positions, the best hires come with a liberal arts background. They adapt better to an ever-changing world. When I started college, all computers ran on punch cards. When I graduated punch cards no longer existed. Those with a broad-based education moved into other fields quickly and successfully. If you have any respect for the University you currently serve, you will reconsider the plan to end the Liberal Arts degree programs.
I’d planned to have a sizable portion of my estate used to support the mission of my Alma Mater. I’m notifying you that I am withdrawing that offer. I cannot support an institution that has lost sight of the purpose of a University. I deeply regret this action, but your plans have left me no choice.
Stephen J. Piotrowski,
Class of 1977, Albertson Memorial Award Recipient
1621 Adams Street
Madison, WI. 53711