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?



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