Reflections on Leaving Wisconsin, or Ghosting UW, Heartbreak Edition


I have worked at UW Marathon County since 2002, when I first completed my PhD in English. I made my life here. My family is rooted here (my children were born here, my husband’s family lives here). Now I am leaving Wisconsin because of the ways that working in higher education in the UW System in this state has become essentially unbearable, at least for me, as a faculty member in the UW Colleges–the open access and local pathway to a UW degree.

I’m writing all this down because what I most wish is that the everyday residents of Wisconsin and the members of our communities understand what the costs of the decision to dismantle the UW Colleges are–what this will mean for our communities and for our state. The way stories are reported about this are usually shaped by announcements and press releases from the UW System. Or our…

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Statement on UWSP #SaveOurMajors Rally in Madison

AAUP Wisconsin

AAUP Wisconsin supports the students rallying in Madison today to save the liberal arts majors at UW-Stevens Point. We join students, faculty, alumni, and community members in expressing our dismay at the proposal to eliminate these programs, and we call on the Stevens Point administration to withdraw its plan from consideration.

AAUP proceeds from the position that academic program decisions must be based on educational considerations. We are aware of no sound educational consideration that supports the elimination of English, History, Political Science, Geography, Geoscience, Philosophy, Sociology, French, German, Spanish, Art, American Studies, or Music Literature as major programs of study. To our knowledge, the Stevens Point administration has not even attempted to offer an explanation on educational grounds.

UW-Stevens Point students have come to the right place today. Our UW System leaders in Madison have laid the groundwork for what is happening in Stevens Point. They have approved an…

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Eulogy for UWS

Dr. Meg Krausch

I did not plan to be a college professor when I entered my PhD program in sociology. I was interested in more directly community engaged work and writing. I fell in love with teaching during my fieldwork at a movement run high school for adults in Buenos Aires, where I co-taught social sciences in a classroom populated primarily by young women who lived in the neighboring shantytown. But even so, I was highly suspicious that this experience could be replicated inside of a bureaucratic institution of higher education in any meaningful way.

It was only toward the end of my tenure as a graduate student when I saw one particular job listing that I decided to look for jobs teaching at the university level. The job was at the University of Michigan-Flint, a regional comprehensive university where my mom had graduated when I was a kid.

Looking at the posting…

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Ghosting UW: Why People Will Leave, Or, What if the Packers were a Private Good?

Ghosting UW: Why People Will Leave, Or, What if the Packers were a Private Good?

In Part 1 of this blog entry, we highlight the disappearing features of employment in the UW System that have created the kind of high quality state-wide resource that Wisconsin could be proud of. The public commitment and the state commitment to making the UW system–not just UW Madison, the flagship, but all the regional comprehensive, two-year colleges, and Extension sites in the state–have ensured our campuses are robust, integrated, and powerful resources for the state’s citizens. As “Ghosting UW: Why We Came Here” explains, the commitment to the UW system as a treasured, collective resource is rivaled only by the unique Wisconsin statewide commitment to the Green Bay Packers–the only publicly owned NFL franchise in the country (and it will always be the only one, as NFL has passed rules prohibiting this model for future teams).

What this has produced is a culture of shared ownership. Much like the Wisconsin culture around the Packers is unique because of the collective passion state residents have for the team (regardless of wins and losses or championships), the UW campuses have been the source of pride throughout the state, even among those who have no direct investment in or relationship with those campuses. Above Highway 29, you’ll find Badger hats and T-shirts and UW-Madison swag in as great a number as you will in Dane County. The UW has been a source of pride, reflected in the public commitment to supporting that treasured place where we were proud to send our kids, proud to advertise on our t-shirts and hats, and proud to work for.

As a point of contrast, what if we decided that instead of being a public good that all Wisconsinsites can be a part of, we decided to sell off the Green Bay Packers to a small group of investors or single owner. Instead of being supported by a collection of shareholders in Wisconsin, the team belong to one or two or three big-money investors. Would our state be the same? Would our Sunday afternoons be the same? Would our star players stay? Or would they avail themselves of the many, many opportunities that the national professional football market has to be lured elsewhere. This is similar, though it may seem a strange comparison, to the national market of higher education and the ongoing dismantling of the UW system. Our best people are going and gone, whether they want to our not.  Those who are place-bound and place-committed find themselves taking on more and more of the load of institutional citizenship than before (mentoring, program development, committee work and other service, assessment of student learning, etc), and with increasingly fewer resources and less job stability. We are effectively disinvesting in our public UW System, making it more and more vulnerable to the whims of a few shareholders with similar ideological views and the whims of the market of student enrollment declines and surges.

What’s important for Wisconsin citizens and communities to realize is that the gradual gutting of all those qualities that made UW great means that the people, programs, and commitment that were attracted to a flyover state will be harder and harder to retain. That means that certain programs or opportunities that faculty and researchers have built here will be lured elsewhere, and our students will be poorer for those losses. Sara Goldrick-Rab, who researches educational policy, left in 2016 following the Board’s radical changes to tenure. During her time at UW Madison, she “brought more than $10 million in federal research funding to UW-Madison” and with her departure, “The HOPE Lab she founded will close in 2018, when a five-year $2.5 million grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation expires.”  A similar story is that of digital humanities scholar Jesse Stommel, who wrote in this blog: leaving Wisconsin is still hard. Some of the first words I wrote to a close colleague in May when the dominoes here began to fall: “I’m intensely loyal. I don’t abandon ship, but I looked around today and just saw water — no ship,” and, after his decision to take a new position out of state: “When I took this job, I thought I’d be here for life. I was born in this state, my closest mentor was born in this state, and I have some of the most daring and brilliant colleagues here. We have collaborated in spite of systems that have made that increasingly difficult. I remain awed by what we’ve built together.” These are not people who wanted to leave. But their absence, and the loss of what they built, will be felt for years, if not decades.  

And not every faculty member who works for the UW system is bringing in millions of dollars worth of federal grant money; faculty at the two-year UW Colleges campuses or UW Stevens Point or most of our regional comprehensive universities were not hired to do that. They teach four courses a semester (in contrast with the 1 or 2 that a research-intensive campus assigns), they engage in scholarship, and they build programs, mentor students, and work on their teaching. These faculty members were hired through a rigorous national search.  For many of these positions, they were chosen from dozens to hundreds of applicants vying for the same job. The decision to move to central Wisconsin was a deliberate choice that each of these faculty members made because they wanted to teach the students who live here in Wisconsin. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education speaks to diversity of students who choose accessible institutions; they are a population of students like those at UW Stevens Point, who are both challenging and rewarding to work with. They are the first in their families to go to college; they went to rural (or urban) high schools. They struggle financially. They expect to work hard. They are so many UW students.

The faculty selected from the rigorous national search process spend their careers learning how to teach these students and how to help move them through higher education successfully.   Last year, the UW Colleges lost the chair of women’s and gender studies to a Dean position at at Bay de Noc College in Escanaba. Dr. Amy Reddinger created and cultivated the UW Marinette LBGT Center, responding to the “overwhelming need for the resource.” As Dr. Reddinger stated, “There are no organizations or agencies that are dedicated to working with LGBT people in at least three counties in Oconto, Marinette, and Menominee.” The center also is a critical opportunity to combat the growing numbers of suicide among LGBT youth in the community. “The suicide rate for LGBT youth is four times higher than non-LGBT youth. We need to support kids who are coming out earlier and earlier,” she explained. So while the faculty members that we are at risk of losing may not be as well known as Sara Goldrick-Rab, they are much more like Dr. Amy Reddinger.  They are faculty members who are able to see the unique needs of the geographical area that the campus serves. They made a choice and a commitment to serve the students and the community. They teach our students English, History, Political Science, and Sociology, and they teach them well. They are highly desirable. And other institutions see their worth.

These are examples of people who already left the state. But remarks from current faculty who are dealing with the consequences of President Ray Cross’s reckless decision to dissolve the UW Colleges as an institution and reassign them as branch campuses and UW Stevens Point’s nationally embarrassing announcement of elimination of 13 majors, all in the liberal arts–have wrought. The University of Wisconsin System has invested millions of dollars in developing tenure-line faculty and academic staff who have become experts in their fields, and Wisconsin is losing (and will continue to lose) that investment as people take that expertise and exceptional credentials to other more stable jobs in other states.

Informal surveying of current faculty responding anonymously illustrates these tragic losses. Explaining their desire to look elsewhere for academic employment, faculty stated they are looking “…anywhere more stable than UWS,” and “…anywhere other than UW.”  Many would prefer to stay, “If I could, I would. I just don’t think it’s feasible in the long-term. I can’t deal with the constant uncertainty” and “Not if these changes go through. I love teaching here, but this will change the entire mission of the University. We are here to serve the needs of the community, and that will no longer be possible.” One faculty member in an affected department wrote,

“It’s startling to have multiple interviews lined up already.  I have an interview scheduled for an out of state position that pays significantly more than what I make here. I was also offered an interview for a position outside of my field for a job that seems very exciting.  To have multiple organizations recruiting me is such a departure from my current situation where I am simply not valued… where my institution is trying to jettison me. I love my job; I work hard to serve my students well. I don’t want to move.  I wish I could stay here, where I have a community and a home, where my child goes to school, and where we have friends. But it’s clear that UWSP sees me as a liability rather than an asset.”

Another faculty member from one of the small, Central Wisconsin two-year campuses felt forced to go on the job market after the merger announcement, and will now leave the system for a position with a salary $30,000 higher than her current pay (in a liberal arts field); and will take with her several popular local continuing education youth outreach opportunities and relationships with local nonprofit organizations.

And what drives them to go elsewhere is the consequences of the public disinvestment in the system and concern for their families and students: “I’ve devoted nearly 20 years of service to this state, only to be repeatedly mocked and made to feel worthless. Even if I can personally absorb the stresses, I know my family cannot.,” and “The stress is unbearable. I find I have little time to concentrate on actually teaching. I can’t sleep and I am getting very sick.”  The stress of the restructuring and its poor execution as well as the relentless cuts, furloughs, and hostility from the governor, the legislature, and the Board of Regents has created “stress personally, physically, family, professionally… physically feel ill about it,” with another respondent writing “I’m not sleeping. My anxiety is through the roof. I can’t be the teacher I want and can be in total chaos all the time.”

And faculty and staff responding to questions are worried not just about their families and their health but the consequences to the system, and to their students. The concerns focus on what it means to hemorrhage our most committed and hard-working faculty, reflected widely by faculty considering leaving; we are losing the Aaron Rogers and Jordy Nelsons, the Clay Mathews and. yes, the David Bakhtiaris–who show up, do the job, and do it well, even if they aren’t the rock stars.

  • We’re going to lose a lot of talented, passionate educators, and the students are the ones who’ll suffer for it
  • The UW System is in danger of losing much of its talent.
  • The faculty who have left have been some of our best. Huge loss for students and colleagues as we lose opportunities to work with these talented faculty who take their abilities, knowledge, skills elsewhere.

So who benefits from this disinvestment? Who benefits from starving the UW of resources and insisting that the gap between expenses and revenue (largely tuition at this point) don’t line up. Who benefits when structural deficits force program cuts, faculty layoffs, and what eventually will be small campus closures. Student? Faculty? Staff? Our communities? Who benefits from these choices, when $100 million can be used to make our K-12 schools more prisonlike while the options for our local students seeking higher education become narrower and fewer? Ultimately, both people who are leaving the UW and the state and those who are staying feel pain. Our students will lose. The state will lose.  

As one faculty member wrote “I feel heartbroken that The Wisconsin Idea is dying before my eyes.”


Ghosting UW: Why We Came Here

1904 Wisconsin’s President Charles Van Hise stated unequivocally that he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.” In that Progressive-era formulation, every citizen of Wisconsin would be able to benefit from the knowledge and discoveries created at the University, and, by extension, others in the nation and the world.

The UW System became the UW system in 1971, after several years of study and discussion by the Merger Implementation Study Committee. It merged two systems and created the UW Centers freshman-sophomore campuses throughout the state. Since that time, the UW System developed a reputation as a “world class university,” a phrase that is used regularly within the UW System, the state of Wisconsin, and throughout the country. Historically it has ranked as one of the top in the country on a wide range of metrics (UW Madison in particular).

How did a public state university in a midwestern state rise to the top of rankings? In academic circles (and others), we hear a lot of references to “flyover country“–places that you really don’t want to actually visit but that you have to cross to get to other, better places. Nonetheless, the UW campuses have attracted productive, nationally-known scholars to the state since the system’s formation.  

How did this happen–and how does the gutting of all those things that have successfully built the system set us up for a decline into mediocrity?

Faculty searches are national searches. Academics earn PhDs and, in a tight market, nearly always have to relocate to another part of the country or the world to find satisfactory and stable employment. That means that, with good working conditions, universities in a wide range of potentially not-so-desirable locations for folks with advanced degrees, cultured tastes, and often progressive views, can be lured to places that might not be aligned very well with those priorities. Wisconsin used to offer these things, all of which have been dismantled, diminished, or eliminated under the legislature’s and governor’s policy decisions since Act 10 in 2011:

Ironclad commitment to tenure: The definitions and conditions of tenure were, prior to 2016, enshrined in state statute, the only university system to have such a symbolic and strong commitment to tenure and shared governance for the university. This was a beacon to potential faculty, communicating the state’s value on these prized values in higher education, established many decades ago by the American Association of University Professors. Tenure guarantees academic freedom and the ability of faculty to support and advance brave, bold, and provocative areas of research and teaching that move knowledge forward within a field. It protected and encouraged innovation.

Commitments to Program Support and Continuation: Historically, faculty could be assured that their commitment to the system and the state would be equally vigorously exercised by their university workplace. With the passage of the Faculty Layoff policy by the Board of Regents in 2016, language that allows for market-based decisions that close programs and layoff faculty has reneged on this commitment.  

Robust shared governance: Faculty who are being recruited by the system look to see how effective the voice of faculty shared governance groups–senates or councils–as well as departmental committees and other university groups is in terms of managing the university’s curricular and personnel priorities.  Historically, the state statute language defining shared governance could assure prospective faculty that faculty are “active participants” in institutional policy development and “shall have the primary responsibility for academic and educational activities and faculty personnel matters.” The changed language in 2016 revised the language to reflect a “subordinate” and “advisory” role. Now, prospective faculty cannot be assured they will have a defining say over the quality or decisions of their programs.

State funding support to a public education system:  Two decades ago, the state provided a majority of the budget support to the UW System, ensuring that a stable foundation of resources was available to support courses, programs, and support for students. This is essential to quality because tuition is soft money that fluctuates depending on enrollment. That doesn’t, however change the fact that to offer quality services to students, you still have a required baseline of resources needed. The gutting of GPR support to the UW System means that faculty, staff, and students see a declining commitment to campuses.

Affordable tuition for students: It might seem like tuition freezes help students, but unless they are accompanied by an equivalent resource commitment from the state, all they do is erode quality.  Cutting funding from the state while not raising tuition means that there is ultimately what is called a ‘structural deficit’–a gap between what income is coming in and what expenses need to be covered. Tuition has been frozen–but students are getting less and less what they pay for. Simultaneously, the two-year college campuses that have previously offered students a low-cost option compared with the four years are now being merged with the four years. And it is unlikely that that lower tuition will be maintained as even now administrators at those four-year campuses are asking “How can we justify having students pay a lower cost for the same course we offer at another site?”  

A value system and philosophy that saw the university as an embedded, integrated, and respect of the state (The Wisconsin Idea): As the epigraph to this blog illustrates, the relationship between the UW System and the state has been reflected in what has been called the Wisconsin IDea for a century. It signaled to prospective faculty, staff, and students, that the relationship between Madison and the rest of the state or campuses and their communities was collaborative, productive, and important.   In 2015, though, Scott Walker tried to delete the language of the Wisconsin Idea from state statute/mission statement. And though it was ultimately retained, recent decisions to cut the majors and programs from the comprehensive program offerings at UW Superior and UW Stevens Point reveal that the language is hollow if the spirit and substance are gone.

An incredible benefits package that made up for a lower-than average salary scale:  It’s documented that UW campuses have significantly lower faculty salaries than peer institutions in other states. This has been true for a long time. What made up for that was a highly competitive benefits package that included zero premium costs on the part of employees and low co-pays. Since 2011, these have increased every year, with the sum total cost being a pay reduction of several percent, despite the very small increases that have taken place in the last 10 years (2 years of pay increase at 1%).

Coming soon: Ghosting UW: Why We Are Leaving Here


Laboratories of austerity

“The elitism underpinning this set of developments has not gone unnoticed. The Colleges’ predicament was accelerated by the 2015 regionalization of administrative services, taking advising and other support away from where it was most needed on the System’s open-door campuses. The UW-Superior administration struck a remarkably patronizing tone, suggesting that its many first-generation students might be overwhelmed by the range of choices available at a truly comprehensive university. And the UW-Stevens Point administration has spun a tendentious hunch about its students’ career planning into a suggestion that they seek fancy things like English and history degrees elsewhere. This is not a strategic retreat from the educational ideal so that the university might be saved; it is an abandonment of our neediest students, of entire regions in central and northern Wisconsin, and of the democratizing mission of the public university.”

Language Politics

UW-Stevens Point has attracted national attention for its administration’s plan to shutter the bulk of its majors in the humanities and social sciences. UW-Superior’s administration summarily suspended 25 programs in October, sidestepping the governance process and triggering a vote of no confidence in the chancellor. And the UW Colleges and Extension is being dissolved as a freestanding institution, its 13 campuses to be absorbed by nearby UW universities barely 9 months after UW System President Ray Cross’s surprise restructuring announcement last fall.

In other words, we are now seeing exactly the kinds of developments that were made possible by the statutory changes to tenure and shared governance in 2015 and the resulting Regent policies on faculty termination via program change, which triggered no confidence votes in Cross and the Regents across the System in the spring of 2016. The ideological vision behind those changes is apparent in the squeezing of…

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Ghosting the Region II: Rural Students Deserve Better

Ray Cross loves the humanities

In October 2017, UW Superior led the way in moving to withhold access to liberal arts major programs for northern and rural students, suspending majors and minors like journalism, sociology, history, geography, photography, art history, and an array of other majors and minors. Further evidence of the gap between northern Wisconsin and southern Wisconsin is to be found in UW Stevens Point’s recent announcement to close major programs grounded in liberal arts fields in favor of  ‘vocationalizing’. The rural/urban divide first described by Kathy Cramer in The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker is more starkly shown than ever in these university decisions that will eliminate accessible, affordable, and high-quality education throughout the state.

What public higher education has always done is make it possible for people without a lot of financial means to access the same kinds of quality programs that you can get at Lawrence University or Dartmouth or Harvard–curricula based on the liberal arts foundation. Gutting majors in the humanities and social sciences–programs that provide access to the people in a dozen counties in central Wisconsin–ultimately closes off choices for certain kinds of people and not others. Why should the student whose rural high school couldn’t offer AP Literature or Music or History or Sociology courses also be relegated to a local four-year campus that is now without a robust traditional curriculum and an array of fields led by faculty members hired to lead such departments?  Why should our local students be deprived of the same opportunities students in other parts of the state will have to explore possibilities and find their pathways? Why should our local students not be able to choose the areas of study that often lead to innovation, leadership, creative thinking, entrepreneurship?

Savvy colleges recognize that rural students are those being left behind–and they are reaching out to these students even if they are doing so with a recruitment mindset. Yet in Wisconsin, the two year campuses of the UW Colleges (the most efficient of all of our institutions in the state since buildings were owned by counties, and those poised to serve rural students in many corners of the state) were disbanded. Those campuses–which epitomized the Wisconsin Idea in bringing the university to the community–were seen by Assemblyman Dave Murphy as “an antiquated system that was originally designed for an agrarian economy.” But agriculture is not an antiquated part of Wisconsin’s economy or culture. Farmers and small business owners want their children to go to college–and not too far away so they can still contribute to and learn from the family’s trade, ready to return to it with their schooling complete. Murphy would benefit from reading “Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On,” a recent article that investigates how Orange City, Iowa, has remained a growing and thriving place while other small midwestern cities struggle. The town’s success? Its young people are able to stay and pursue their training as teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and future leaders through the small liberal arts college in town.

Conversely, in Wisconsin, not only are our system leaders ignoring the potential benefits of recruiting from our heartland–our rural counties--they are ignoring the role our public institutions can play as hearts of those communities, circulating their life blood, their young people, within their system; keeping it alive.  As data from the UWSP office of institutional research data reveal, of the new freshman class at UW Stevens Point, 90% are Wisconsin residents; a closer look at the home cities of 2017 first-year students shows that students from the nearest four zip code clusters (544XX, 549XX, 547XX, and 546XX–or a rough analysis of students attending the campus from within 100 miles) make up 43% of the freshman class (944 of 2194).  Broadening out the analysis to two hours would certainly increase that number to at least half of UWSP’s student body. UW Stevens Point is an access point for our local students.

No doubt Republican leaders in the capitol will say rural students have access to any form of higher education they choose through the wonders of the Internet, but bring that argument with you on your next fishing trip north of Highway 29. People who live there year-round know what it’s like to try to run small businesses with spotty Internet signals, and unfulfilled promises from state leaders and telecommunications corporations (subsidized to expand their broadband in rural areas of Wisconsin). Students in the southern half of the state aren’t told their only option for the basics of a higher education is to go online–they have a plethora of brick-and-mortar choices as well as steady signals. It’s important to note that these same political leaders are the ones who insisted that dissolving the UW Colleges (the only institution with a mission of access) would actually increase access for students.

Rural Communities Need Arts and Culture

The lurking argument here, of course, is that the north half of the state doesn’t need the humanities–Art or English, History or Philosophy. A visit to Bayfield or Door County, though, or these days even Rhinelander or Hayward, shows just how clearly the arts are connected to tourism. A 2016 study concluded that “The arts and culture – the creative industries – mean jobs for Wisconsin…this new study underscores the importance of the creative industries’ return on investment, through the many jobs in the arts, and the important role they play in creating the vibrant communities necessary to retain and attract the entrepreneurs and skilled workforce Wisconsin needs in order to compete in the 21st century.” The economic impact of arts education and its related economic impact on our state’s tourism industry is undeniable: local nonprofit arts organizations generate $657 million in economic activity annually, resulting in nearly $75 million in local and state tax revenues, 26,695 in full-time equivalent jobs and $555 million in resident income.”

Where there are arts organizations, there tend to be businesses that have innovative products or practices.  Rural counties that host performing arts orgs tend to have greater population growth and residents that are better educated and earn higher incomes than residents of other rural counties. Further, between 2010 and 2014, when the average population growth in rural counties was 391 people, those counties that hosted performing arts organizations saw an increase of 2,096 people. Rural communities in particular benefit from access to creative thinkers, educated people who have the ability to think innovatively and imaginatively, to make creative use of what’s around them, and who reflect in their creativity the life and heart of the place from which they come. There’s a reason Bon Iver’s (a Wisconsin-born band in the national spotlight) album won Grammys–frontman Justin Vernon was from a town of 1315 people and that authenticity spoke to hundreds of thousands of album buyers and music downloaders. (Also worth noting: Vernon majored in Religious Studies and minored in Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire). If we want the future of Wisconsin to include growth in the burgeoning creative economy (and creative industries)  and the knowledge economy–the sector of the economy requiring education and training; information infrastructure, and support for innovation and ideas–the worst thing we can do is close off access to those fields that will allow the next generation of Wisconsinites to lead the way.

The same folks who don’t think the Northwoods is rich with arts and culture and that we don’t know how to make use of art in the community are also those who question why Central Wisconsin kids need political science, geology, or philosophy. That way of thinking suits those who look north and only see metals to extract or timber to fell, inland lakes they don’t need to bother to protect, or Great Lakes water rights to sell. For people who don’t hunt or fish, who don’t ski the Birkie or snowmobile, it’s easier to imagine their own uses for the land and resources if fewer local kids are ever going to be judges or ecologists, conservationists or activists. If there are going to be any local kids around to say something at all.

The truth about higher education and Wisconsin may be that Wisconsin leaders don’t want it. It’s not valued by employers who want to build FoxConns. A true higher education is valued, though, by employers who want to pay professional salaries, by entrepreneurs who want to go into small businesses for themselves, and by families who want their children to return from college to apply their skills in the family-owned business or farm. People who see how fast the world is changing know that a university education can’t be about training for the jobs that exist this week, but about developing critical thinking skills, adaptability, and the broad base of skills that can later be applied to lead in the coming decade–and to develop new kinds of jobs that don’t even exist yet. Further, why can’t students and their families be trusted to choose their own career paths? State (taxpayer) support for the UW System has fallen from 50% of the of the institution’s budget to just 13%. Legislators are no longer willing to pay to support our children’s higher educations–and yet they still want to dictate what they’re allowed to study when paying for it themselves?

Your Kids Deserve More

The people making this decision know how power works and how you limit access to opportunity and choices. In fact, they themselves–or their children– have availed themselves of opportunities to study history, political science, sociology, and philosophy. For example, UW System Regent John Behling and Drew Peterson hold degrees in history. Regent President John Behling and the Education Committee chair and recently appointed Regent Gerald Whitburn both studied political science, as does the student representative, Ryan Ring, at UW Eau Claire and Regent Tracey Kleine. President Ray Cross regularly refers in meetings to his two sons, holding doctorates in philosophy and professorships in that field, at elite liberal arts colleges. UWSP Chancellor Bernie Patterson studied Criminology, generally considered a branch of sociology, a degree pathway being eliminated, while the UWSP Provost has multiple degrees in history. If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for central Wisconsin’s kids?


Ghosting the Region: How UWSP’s Abandonment of the Liberal Arts Hurts Central Wisconsin

“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,” Patterson said in the statement. “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.”– UWSP Chancellor Bernie Patterson, March 5, 2018 News Release

On Monday, March 5, the administration of University of Wisconsin Stevens Point released its recommended program closures and expansions (availability of majors for students). This announcement has been anticipated for several months, following a year of budget discussions and strategic planning. Before the announcement, UWSP faculty had been given information that gestured toward a re-evaluation of what has historically been UWSP’s, commitment to liberal education and the role of the comprehensive regional public university Nonetheless,  many faculty, staff, and students were shocked at the degree to which those major programs targeted to be eliminated were nearly all the liberal arts disciplines in the College of Letters and Sciences. As the public document, “Point Forward: Reimagining our Curriculum for the Future” asks:

In this rapidly changing environment, UW-Stevens Point must adapt by selecting core specializations and striving to offer the best programs possible within these areas. The operative question is this: If we can no longer function as a broadly comprehensive institution, then how best can we forge a new, more focused identity for the twenty-first century?

The recommended paths forward are exclusively focused on the elimination of liberal arts majors that have been the foundation of a university education, with expanded investment in programs that are vocational and technical in nature. The first table shows what is being cut, while the second shows what is being added.

majors cut

majors created

UWSP leadership has explained by turns apologetically and pragmatically the justification for the change. “Really, what this is about today is a really large curriculum proposal. How our curriculum can move forward in the 21st century to meet career needs to meet economic needs of the area, the region’s needs,” [Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Eric] Yonke explained. Provost Greg Summers acknowledged, “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.” But what will the costs of these decisions be for central Wisconsin?

What do the Liberal Arts do Anyway?

It is popular for faculty in these fields sometimes to talk about about what they believe to be the “inherent” value of these disciplines. They might make arguments typically offered by organizations like the AAC&U about broad-based liberal education creating a well-rounded person and a common foundation of knowledge, they might discuss the cultivation of dimensions of the education person through the study of a broadly defined liberal arts curriculum: critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving, lifelong learning skills, intellectual curiosity, flexible thinking, ability to adapt, abilities to process and analyze information, personal insight, civic engagement, etc. These arguments both outline the important intrinsic features and outcomes of liberal education.

However, liberal education serves other important functions within the economic and political landscape. To say that the only value of liberal arts fields it intrinsic does not capture the ways that these dispositions, content knowledge, and skills translate into opportunity for students.

Lost Pathways?

In northern and northcentral Wisconsin, the access to college education is significantly different from the far southern part of the state. The next closest four-year college to Wausau is 90 minutes west or 90 minutes east (Eau Claire or Green Bay). Such a distance would be an impossible commute for many of the students who are placebound or who want to live at home to cut costs. These changes mean that a student could still start and complete their first two years of general education at UW Stevens Point and Marathon or Marshfield/Wood County, but they would no longer be able to complete a liberal arts four-year degree in any of those degree programs that students are most likely to require as a foundation for some of the most influential professional fields.

For example, let’s say a prospective student wants to be a lawyer. The eliminated majors include three of the top five scoring student majors for the LSAT (the standardized test required for law school). History, English, Philosophy, and Political Science are all degree programs eliminated under the current proposal:  


In addition, while many medical students major in biological sciences (preserved under the proposal), students with humanities degrees actually had higher average scores on the MCAT (the standardized test score for admission to medical school then biological sciences majors) than students who majored in biology.  

On the GRE, the standardized test that typically is required for nearly every graduate school or program post baccalaureate, students who major in five of the top 10 scoring disciplines will be eliminated under the proposal (philosophy, English, Political Science, History, and Arts).


Why do these statistics matter? They are one way of documenting the ability of students to be competitive for admission to well-paying, rewarding and highly-regarded fields of study. We are essentially closing off whole programs that–in the rural northern counties that UWSP draws from–will now be unavailable to students who either want to live at home, close to home, or remain in the area for college and potentially beyond. We have also eliminated the ability of the university to recruit those students who have ambitions or hopes to prepare themselves for those types of careers to even apply for admission to UWSP. They will not be able to pursue the degrees that will make them most prepared for those careers. And these areas of the state already struggle to recruit non-homegrown professionals: lawyers, doctors, accountants, entrepreneurs.

For central Wisconsin parents, that means that you will have no choice but to send your students away to college somewhere else if you, or they, have professional ambitions beyond the bachelor’s degree, or who hope to be prepared by their liberal arts education for success in their career beyond their ‘first job out.”

Success for the Career Long Haul

An Atlantic  article noted that fields falling within the Liberal arts attract 33.8% students who were first generation, compared with 30.4% of students who were continuing generation; first-job salaries are lower, but “over time, liberal-arts graduates’ earnings often surge, especially for students pursuing advanced degrees. History majors often become well-paid lawyers or judges after completing law degrees, a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project has found.”  

A Washington Post article making the rounds on social media reported on the findings from an internal Google data collection that “among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.” As the story goes on to note, these qualities all appear to me most likely to be associated with fields that require intensive reading, collaboration, analysis, writing, analysis skills, and management of large amounts of information–in other words, the humanities and social science majors that are being eliminated in this proposal.

Changing the Mission, Faculty, and Student Body of UWSP

The talented faculty and staff of UWSP have made their lives and careers at the institution to do the work of sharing their knowledge with, of mentoring and supporting, students in general education and major programs. The student body that they previously attracted–students who came to UWSP either intending to or quickly deciding to major in those eliminated programs will fundamentally change.

Those departments–though they will continue to contribute courses to and support for the general education (first two years) of the Baccalaureate program, will go from teaching students, courses, and degree programs that were purposefully selected and chosen by students as their fields of study to students, courses, and degree programs who explicitly did not apply to UWSP to pursue any of those fields and don’t expect to because they aren’t available. In other words, the whole mission and vision that those faculty were brought to support is going away. It will be difficult to attract faculty in a national search for those fields (which has been the practice of UW comprehensives) to teach in programs that explicitly DON’T have students who want to study those disciplines.

Though it is not been discussed as part of the merger or program elimination, we also have to consider the issues of student transfer, access, and success. By branching Marathon and Marshfield campuses with UWSP, the rhetoric has been that this will increase the seamlessness of transfer of student from two-year to four year campuses. Except, what if the exact opposite is true? What if, now, students are being locked into a curriculum that will be the one UWSP currently offers; four year colleges have generally not worked very hard to create easy transfer (or been attentive to those students) because their mission traditionally hasn’t been for students to transfer. Students start at those residential campuses usually with the intention to finish; now, the branch campuses will be their general education and associate’s degree courses under a four-year college catalog (which the new merger proposal necessitates). Students who intended to major in any of the eliminated 13 humanities and social science fields will have to transfer to a different school within the System or out of state. The seamlessness of transfer suddenly then becomes less likely rather than more likely. By contrast, with the above reversal of UWSP’s mission and commitment to liberal arts, the Marathon and Marshfield campuses will actually continue to attract, support, and cultivate students with aspirations to major in the humanities and social sciences–they will just transfer to a campus that is not UWSP.

We need to think hard, in this context, about what this mission and program shift will mean for Marathon County, Taylor County, Wood County, Waupaca, Adams, and Juneau and Portage County and every county that is within 100 miles of UWSP. What will this mean for culture, economics, marketability, the labor force, and our families? This isn’t just about closing some programs; it will fundamentally shift opportunity and choices for our children.

Two years ago, Scott Walker attempted to take the Wisconsin Idea out of state statute, taking out the mission statement to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and would thus cease its “search for truth” and its efforts to “improve the human condition,” and replacing it with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” Legislators and the governor did not succeed in taking those core tenets of the mission statement of the UW System–the mission that guided decisions that elevated the UW campuses and its flagship to its reputation as a “world class” institution–but they did not have to change the words in order to change the mission. UWSP’s pivoting toward vocational and technical major programs, and elimination of the liberal arts majors that are being eliminated will change the search for truth into the acceptance of facts, and so the words will be hollow even if they remain.



Education is Not a Zero Sum Game

“The mission of this 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 value and purpose. Inherent in this mission are methods of instruction, research, extended education, and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the System is the search for truth.” UW system mission

As the UW system leadership has increasingly advanced partisan and ideological control of resources and political pandering rather the Wisconsin Idea or the pursuit of truth, we see a new rhetoric emerging. This language reframes higher education not as a public good, but rather as a free market enterprise available to a few.  It celebrates the acquisition of a narrowly defined form of human capital, rather than cultivation of  human capital. In this paradigm, it’s the job of UW to attract students and staff who are already academically socialized into the college gig.  In the past, the Wisconsin Idea prompted politicians and leaders in the UW System to consider how to expand the resources of the university across the state to benefit all its residents.  In this new paradigm, leaders are inverting  this way of thinking.  The UW-Madisonification of the UW System frames those defined as having “talent” as being resources for the university.

At the February 2016 UW Board of Regents meeting, Regent Higgins criticized Madison’s expanded admissions numbers, complaining that additional admissions to Madison would come from the population of “best and brightest” that the other campuses also would admit. A February 2017 Board meeting reported on new legislation that would create funding for a Wisconsin Merit Scholarship Program, to enhance the ability of the state to retain “the best and brightest students,” which of course is narrowly defined by standardized test scores which are documented to disadvantage students who are not white and upper-middle class.

Ironically, as well, a December 2016 Board meeting bemoaned trouble “Keeping the best and brightest faculty and staff at the UW Madison campus,’ after years of relentless budget cuts; the prospect of program closures based on fiscal considerations that the new Regents Policy Document RPD 20-24 empowered; and removal of tenure policy from state statute to a much-easier-to-change location in Board policy.

Founded on the principle of the land grant university that the 1862 Morrill Act authorized, UW Madison and its extension centers throughout the state are inherently and historically supposed to fulfill this goal: “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” Instead, it seems the new mission is to exclude students who the mission would serve–those who would “develop human resources” and to “developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise, and a sense of value and purpose.” Rather, the paradigm shift instead calls to narrow access and to reward students who have already had privilege and opportunity. By contrast, a recent New York Times article articulated the value of the land grant university in its transformative effect on area residents and the important role that lower tuition plays for its low-income students.

With the UW Restructuring, which enacts the dismantling of the UW Colleges as the third-largest UW institution in the state and instead assigns individual campuses as branches to nearby comprehensives or research institutions, the UW System is failing that mission. Instead, even in a recent communication, the UW System leadership reframes the mission of the UW Colleges from one in which the goal includes “preparing students for success at the baccalaureate level of education, providing the first two years of a liberal arts general education that is accessible and affordable” to, as a recent communication from the System office explains:

Our shared goal is to serve the best and brightest students in Wisconsin, giving them the
opportunity to hone their intellect and shape their future at our family of UW System

If the shared goal is now to serve the best and brightest, Cross’s stated reason for the merger seems mutually incompatible at best, and disingenuous at worst: “Our goal is to expand access and provide more educational opportunities for more students, while ensuring our faculty are appropriately organized and supported.”

The UW Colleges embodied the Wisconsin Idea because of our open-access mission, modest tuition price, and high quality foundation of liberal arts general education that prepared all students, anywhere in the state, to transfer successfully to any UW campus in the System. Students with backgrounds that may not have looked exceptional, or those who may not have had the finances to begin at a comprehensive institution, could start at the UW Colleges where they could benefit from the resources that the University of Wisconsin system offered.  Whether in Cumberland or Peshtigo; Edgar or Wisconsin Dells, aspiring students could access UW quality. The rhetoric has changed. The system has changed. The values have changed.



Dismantling the Wisconsin Idea: Eroding Public Higher Education Access

On October 11, 2017, University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross proposed the restructuring of the University of Wisconsin System, by way of dismantling the UW Colleges (UWC), a statewide, open-admissions, two-year institution with a sole focus on liberal arts education. Originally framed as a merger, the changes, approved at the November 9 Board meeting,  eliminate the shared curriculum, administrative, and governance structures that had been in place, uniting these 13 campuses since 1971. Though these structures are ‘invisible’ to most outsiders (and some inside the institution), they are actually the most important component for institutional accreditation because they are the processes by which we maintain the quality of our academic program (academic departments provide disciplinary expertise and evaluation of instruction and curriculum; faculty governance committees review personnel, set professional standards, award and subsidize forms of professional development that instructors engage in, review curriculum proposals from a crossdisciplinary and policy complaince perspective,etc). In other words, the functions most critical to the maintenance of the academic program in the UW Colleges happen at an institutional level.

At present, the plan approved by the board dismantles the insitution and reassigns the brick and mortar UWC to four-year comprehensive and research institutions. Those quality control structures thus have to be rebuilt or learned anew by the faculty and staff at ‘branch’ campuses. A 14th “Online Campus” was originally proposed to be housed within the System office as a renamed and repurposed entity.  It was apparent to most people working on the ground that the institutional functions described above–which would no longer exist–could not be reproduced for the online program, meaning housing it in an entity that couldn’t provide that level of quality control would not pass accreditation muster. This was of course determined the following month with a special resolution presented to the board after efforts to persuade the Higher Learning Commission to approve the proposed relocation of the online ‘campus’ were unsuccessful.

The UW Colleges administration, faculty, and staff learned of this merger through an article published in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. President Cross’s rationale for these changes is entirely based on demographic shifts in Wisconsin. A subsquent blog post will break down these numbers more critically, but suffice it to say that they do not capture the whole story.

As expected, the UW System Board of Regents approved the change in structure through a resolution on November 9, 2017.

For the last 45 years the UWC has played a unique and critical role in serving The Wisconsin Idea. UWC provides access to liberal arts college coursework to residents who would otherwise be excluded from higher education while also serving the highest percentage of in-state residents of any UW institution. The UW Colleges mission is one of access: “a multi-campus institution committed to high quality educational programs, preparing students for success at the baccalaureate level of education, providing the first two years of a liberal arts general education that is accessible and affordable, providing a single baccalaureate degree that meets local and individual needs, and advancing the Wisconsin Idea by bringing the resources of the University to the people of the state and the communities that provide and support its campuses.” UWC focuses on general education coursework designed to launch students into transfer to baccalaureate programs, which is important for social mobility and professional career trajectories that contrast in significant ways with the vocational mission of our technical college system (which is positioned very specifically as serving business interests and communities). Our campuses are a pathway for our mostly first-generation, Pell-eligible, and at-risk students to a civically-engaged middle-class life. Or have been until now.

What we trace here is an interpretation of how these decisions are a roadmap to dismantling accessible, affordable public higher education in our state. Wisconsin has made headlines as the laboratory for taking one of the most robust and progressive states for higher education and public sector labor and transforming it via conservative think tank-driven public policy. The state of Wisconsin is now a neoliberal landscape characterized by austerity measures, free market and corporate values superimposed onto higher education, and weakened employee protections across employment sectors. What follows is the blueprint for how Wisconsin’s public education system was dismantled.

Budget “Repair:” Death by 1,000 Cuts

When looking retrospectively, it’s easy to see how, over the last seven years, a series of structural, fiscal, and policy changes were put in place that led to the conditions that now exist for essentially dissolving the third largest institution in the state (by student headcount), serving approximately 12,000 students and employing 1000 faculty and staff, with detrimental effects on Wisconsin resident students.

The first and most notable state policy decision that set off the events leading to the current restructuring proposal was what is informally referred to as Act 10. Officially titled the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,” it was the first of a series of legislative policy changes that fundamentally compromised the progressive tradition of both excellent quality higher education and values attached to the public good that have defined the state. Act 10 stripped away jurisdiction and legitimacy for public sector unions, cutting off a burgeoning flurry of activity around unionization within our higher education institutions that would complement the strong system of tenure and shared governance (the only that was enshrined in state statute) that has defined the UW System. As the first state in the country to authorize public unions, this legislative assault was especially symbolic –and led to a series of protests later called “The Wisconsin Uprising,” a crowd-occupation of the state capital, reaching 80,000 in number. Subsequent actions by Republican legislators included not complying with our state’s robust open-meetings laws as they sought to pass anti-union legislation. Significantly, Governor Scott Walker divided public employees from state residents, misrepresenting salaries and benefits, while insinuating they are separate from taxpaying citizens: “we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”

Such political drama was followed by more pedestrian but equally damaging legislative decision-making, including cuts to the UW System budget of 250 million dollars following years of fiscal starvation and austerity measures like furloughs, increased contributions to retirement, and more expensive healthcare co-pays. Within the UW Colleges, these cuts were implemented as layoffs to staff positions, almost all of which provided direct services to our often at-risk and marginalized students populations–technology support, admissions and registration, in person financial aid support, academic advising, and other key extra-academic services that our largely first-generation student population rely on.

Since those who are appointed to the Board of Regents serve for seven years, by 2016, all but two of the Regents were in the middle of terms appointed by Governor Scott Walker and voting in lockstep with each other. Under this ideologically monolithic group, a legislative action that found its way into a 2015 Joint Finance Committee bill removed the definitions, rights and responsibilities spelled out for tenure rights and shared governance rights from state Statute where they had been for decades and moved them to Board policy, thus allowing them to be changed much more easily and watered down to allow individual institutions–and chancellors of institutions–to make autocratic decisions about the working and teaching and learning conditions of faculty, staff, and students.

This action was enabled by changes to the composition of chancellor search committees (fewer faculty, staff, and community member representatives), and by a highly controversial decision to mute the language in the board tenure, post-tenure review, and faculty layoff policies to allow for more top-heavy decision-making on closures of programs that resulted in layoff of faculty. Administrators also have more control over the post-tenure review processes (including requiring an up/down vote from a dean-level or higher administrator on every faculty member’s post-tenure review). These policy changes, along with a subsequent board policy guaranteeing “Freedom of Expression” which, contrary to its title, puts in place chilling consequences for students (and presumably faculty and staff) who publicly protest/object to hate speech or offensive speakers on campus. Finally, the new faculty layoff policy at the Board level loosened the criteria required for a program closure–where previously a campus or the Board had to declare a fiscal emergency to move ahead with faculty layoffs, now “program discontinuance” and “fiscal considerations” are equally valid criteria for decisions that will result in tenured faculty layoff.

Subsequent to these changes, several statewide and systemwide factors converged to lead Wisconsin to the present moment, where the UW Colleges will be dissolved and dismantled to be distributed to four-year campuses as “branches,”  with no clear plan or data to direct the decision. Meanwhile, the profitable online “campus” of the institution will continue as a collaborative online program presumably designed to generate maximum revenue for the contributing campuses. UW campuses are also currently seeing program closures and tenured faculty layoffs, most notably at UW Superior and UW Stevens Point.

Even prior to the election of Scott Walker, the UW system eliminated systemwide strategic enrollment management, incentivizing individual campuses to exceed their designated enrollment target and encouraging mission creep. It also meant that previously more selective institutions (except for UW Madison) have motivation to admit academically underprepared or underqualified students to their campuses without a corresponding requirement to provide students with appropriate academic support.

The Big Picture: Systemic Divestment in Public Education & Privatization of the Knowledge Economy

A critical review of the ongoing defunding of public education, and policy changes reveal that there is a longer game here. What becomes apparent is an ideological motivation to dramatically change the structure, function, and influence of public higher ed. The “end game” is the privatization of the knowledge economy, goals that are well-funded by conservative groups such as the Bradley Foundation, MacIver Institute, and the Koch Foundation. When discussing the Bradley foundation, Mike Tate, former Democratic party chairman states “They have a 15- or 20-year vision, and they are executing it. They have their eyes on the horizon the whole time. That is not something seen in a substantial way in the progressive movement.” The most recent changes to the UW Colleges are only the latest move in the series massive budget cuts, Act 10, media onslaughts targeting UW’s non-existent “slush funds,” the infamous “drafting error” that attempted to modify the UW System’s mission, widely-known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” and changes to administrative hiring processes that have eliminated the requirement for expertise in higher education and instead privileged business and revenue-generation. In other words, the dismantling of UW Colleges is only the latest move in the series that began in earnest with Walker’s election in 2010.

Though public objection prevented executive changes to the Wisconsin idea that Walker penned in a 2013 budget bill, service to private industry and the goals of delegitimizing teaching and curriculum loom large over the changes to the UW Colleges and the UW System as a whole. At the November 9 Board of Regents meeting, Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow called for public education to create business-driven curriculum and programs and cited the need for UW campuses to meet FoxConn’s (a 3 billion dollar political deal that will cost taxpayers nearly $15,000 in tax breaks per job created by this large corporation) workforce development needs that can be met in 6 weeks’ time. At the same time, there are legislators calling for increased “accountability” and for professors to “spend more time in the classroom” while reducing required teaching credentials. Essentially, there is a fundamental conflict between those work with students and those who make ideologically driven policy decisions about the purpose of higher education and its value.

For Wisconsinites invested in public education, this restructuring seems like the first step toward eventual closing of multiple UW Colleges and other struggling comprehensive campuses. The logic that the public is being asked to accept is that by spending a lot of money on a merger and on Huron Consulting, the UW will somehow be able “to keep the doors open” at local campuses. Faculty, staff, students, and communities who value access to an affordable liberal arts education worry, in actuality a re-structured UWC will ultimately end up excluding students from higher education. From a balance sheet perspective, It does not add up to anything other than a further financial divestment in public education and a weakening of the UW System.