As a student at UW-Eau Claire, junior Hillary Smith said she’s seen firsthand how budget cuts affect her and her peers’ college experience.
“I constantly hear students share frustrating experiences of not being able to get into classes they need to graduate in time,” Smith said Wednesday, “or not feeling like professors are helping them the way they need.”
Smith’s comments came as protesters on Wednesday in Madison urged legislators to better fund the UW System as part of a movement called “Reclaim the UW.” A panel of university faculty and community members spoke on the issue at UW-Eau Claire’s Davies Center.
In the state’s 2015-17 budget, the UW System took a $250 million hit in funding. Gov. Scott Walker invested $100 million back into the system last year, although some say that’s not enough.
Budget struggles at universities such as UW-Stevens Point have sparked worry in Smith and others across the state. UW-Stevens Point announced a proposal in early March that would eliminate 13 liberal arts majors. That institution is facing declining enrollment and a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, according to a 2017 state of the university address.
Elsewhere, two-year institutions are merging with four-year institutions, as is the case for UW-Barron County and UW-Eau Claire.
Peter Hart-Brinson, president of United Faculty & Academic Staff’s local chapter and an associate professor of psychology at UW-Eau Claire, said these moves are negatively affecting the quality of higher education.
“None of this is normal,” Hart-Brinson said. “All of it is a result of budget cuts that are reducing student choice, harming educational quality and threatening the ability of the UW to serve the people of Wisconsin.”
“In the most recent budget, the governor approved a pay plan for employees, which is going to boost salaries across campus,” Hart-Brinson said later. “That certainly helps with (staff) morale. However, none of that money can be used for classroom instruction. It doesn’t change the facts on the ground for students.”
While he said nothing of the same scale as UW-Stevens Point would happen in Eau Claire, Hart-Brinson noted faculty in American Indian studies and Latin American studies have received warning letters that their programs are at risk if performance metrics don’t improve.
State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said decreased enrollment at UW-Stevens Point and lower funds are correlated. She said in order to attract and retain more students, the university needs to evaluate which degrees glean more students.
“When your student enrollment goes down, your revenues go down,” Bernier said. “When your revenues go down because of enrollment, you can’t go back to the taxpayers and say, ‘Make up the difference.’ It’s that simple.”
Bernier said budget cuts force businesses to consolidate systems and run more “efficiently and effectively.”
“Changes sometimes make people uncomfortable,” she said. “By the same token, it also makes people and businesses run more efficiently.”
John Behling, an Eau Claire attorney and the UW System Board of Regents president, said input through the “Reclaim the UW” movement is welcome.
“I appreciate the passion for the university demonstrated by our students, faculty and staff on- and off-campus,” he said via email. “The Board of Regents welcomes input from all of our stakeholders as we engage in a constructive dialogue on the future of the UW System.”
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