Thursday, March 15, 2018

Struggling with Stevens Point

I’ve been struggling with saying something helpful about the program cuts at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.  The university is eliminating majors in several key liberal arts fields, including English, history, and political science, while expanding or starting program in various vocational and/or STEM fields.  The academic interwebs are thick with condemnations.

Hat-tip to Bryan Alexander for highlighting the document that the administration prepared to make its case.  It’s actually much more thoughtful than many commenters assume.

The tone that comes through the first couple of pages is exhaustion, or maybe exasperation.  It refers to a series of cuts over the years, with impact across the board. The university acknowledges the cuts in funding it has received, and notes (I assume correctly) the unfavorable demographics it’s facing in terms of the number of 18 year olds in the area.  Then it moves to assumptions, two of which strike me as worth highlighting.

The first is that it’s better to do fewer things, and do them well, than to continue to do everything a little bit worse every year.  

The second is that shared governance isn’t built to handle cuts.  When push comes to shove, faculty will not vote to eliminate their colleagues’ jobs, no matter how dire the situation.  Instead, they’re likely to circle the wagons and attempt to block nearly any change, for fear that they’ll be next.

Both assumptions strike me as plausible.

Much of the internet critique has revolved around changes to the tenure rules that Wisconsin enacted in 2015.  Those changes allowed for terminations of tenured faculty for reasons of programmatic change, rather than only for financial exigency or egregious misconduct.  That gave UW Stevens Point permission to make changes like these. The local administration has responded, in effect, that it’s doing what it has to do to allow the institution to survive.

I don’t know whether it picked the right programs, from an enrollment perspective.  But as someone who actually has to balance a budget, I get what they’re trying to do.  The easy cuts have (apparently) already been made.

This is typically the point at which a college looks hard at a merger.  That probably would have been my move. Stevens Point is choosing metamorphosis instead.  It’s a risky choice, but -- and this is the point that folks in circled wagons often forget -- so is stasis.  Denial is a choice. It is choosing to move from a “comprehensive” model to a “technical college” model. That may or may not work out, but it’s understandable.

From a state-level perspective, I could see a few options.  The one that most of us in higher ed would prefer, myself included, would be a return to solid funding, but that’s unlikely to happen with their current governor.  A second would be to merge campuses, like Connecticut is doing with its community colleges, collapsing twelve into one. The jury is still out on whether that will work and whether it’s a good idea, but the blueprint exists.  A third would be to designate different campuses with different specialities. In that model, one might be the STEM campus, another might be the Business campus, and another might be the liberal arts campus. It would allow everything to be done well somewhere, even if they won’t pay for everything to be done well everywhere.  That model may look lopsided at the campus level, but it makes some sense at the state level. A charitable reading would suggest that Stevens Point is trying to position itself to be the STEM campus.

From this vantage point, though, it looks like Stevens Point is acting alone.  I’m guessing its leadership would welcome state-level help, but if rescue isn’t coming, you have to do something yourself.

From what I’ve read, the most common objections are twofold: an objection to the termination of tenured faculty while others are being hired, and an objection to the elimination of liberal arts majors in particular.  I assume that the two are related, in that full-time faculty positions are particularly hard to find in liberal arts fields, so the fired faculty could be up a creek. I also saw a few folks make a nuanced but smart third objection to the effect that Stevens Point is sacrificing low-cost majors for high-cost majors; even if it helps with enrollment, it could prove financially devastating.  Broadly speaking, vocational programs are far more expensive to run.

All three of those strike me as correct.  A professor who moved to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, to accept a relatively modest salary, did so on the compensating promise of security.  If that security is suddenly eliminated, the professor has every right to feel cheated. If she’s in a field with a significant imbalance of candidates to full-time jobs, she’s looking at the scary prospect of losing her livelihood.  That’s especially galling when you keep in mind how hard that job probably was to get in the first place, and how much work she put into getting tenure.

Compassion for someone in that spot can lead to a “preserve everyone at all costs” policy, but that brings issues of its own.  Politically, it’s easier to not hire than to fire. Those who never get to apply are nameless and faceless. They’re just as worthy, but less well organized.  Whether that makes it the moral choice depends on your sense of morality. I’ve worked at campuses on which the age distribution of the full-time faculty largely skipped a generation; anyone who equates preservation with fairness is invited to explain that to members of the skipped generation.

Stevens Point is apparently acting while it still has room to make choices.  Institutionally, that’s the best time to do it, but it makes it harder to claim objective necessity.  If you wait until the need is beyond dispute, you’ve probably waited until the institution is about to collapse and everybody loses their jobs.  Just ask the folks who used to work at Dowling College, if you can find them.

If you want a villain in the story, I wouldn’t name the administration at Stevens Point.  It has been put in an untenable position. I’d name the state. It hasn’t provided funding anywhere near what a comprehensive university needs, nor has it offered a plan to change the system.  It has allowed flexibility only in one direction, and then applied such strong pressure that the choice boils down to “bend or break.” The loss of liberal arts majors is one part of the story, but it’s only one part, and probably not the most important; if the institution goes under, all majors go.  The real story is the university was put in that position in the first place. Before talking about restoration, we need to establish sustainability. Otherwise, we’re likely to have these same conversations over and over again.