UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt recently released some troubling, though not surprising, information detailing the consequences of the latest round of reductions in statewide support for public higher education in Wisconsin.
Specifically, the state now contributes just 20 percent of the funding to my institution’s operating budget (down from 59 percent in 1975). This begs the question: If the public contributes just one-fifth of the funds to support the school, is it still accurate to refer to it as a public university?
As a direct result of funding cuts, nearly 180 positions have been lost (so far). Ninety-eight faculty and staff left via the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program, or VSIP. Forty-four positions were reduced or contracts not renewed. At least 25 more resigned (seven of whom had tenure). An additional 11 were forced to leave. None of these positions have been replaced. Even if there was the ability to do so, it would probably prove difficult.
Last year the Legislature and governor removed faculty tenure protections from state law. Last month the UW Board of Regents adopted a “tenure” policy that many argue offers little security to faculty who study controversial or politically contentious issues. Consequently, some have left for greener pastures. Opponents of tenure generally argue that it protects lazy educators. They forget, however, that without bona fide tenure protections, our institutions will be unable to attract the best and brightest. This results in a real recruitment dilemma: Who is going to accept a position at the only university system in the country that does not grant tenure?
These faculty and staff departures have impacted the classroom environment. There are nearly 200 fewer class sections being offered at UW-Eau Claire compared to last year. The average class size has increased by 14 percent. There has been a 36 percent increase in classes with more than 50 students and an 18 percent decrease in classes with fewer than 20 students. These figures directly impact our ranking by influential national assessors like U.S. News and World Report.
As a point of reference, 74 percent of the classes at Harvard have fewer than 20 students, compared to about 45 percent at UW-Madison. But worse, increased class sizes make it difficult to develop close relationships with students and incorporate high impact learning practices in the classroom (such as group work, comprehensive research projects and written reflection papers). And with the dust still settling, and staff still departing, it is likely only going to get worse.
I am deeply troubled by this trend, not just because I am one of those who has remained on campus to ride this out, but because I fear for the long-term future of UW-Eau Claire, the UW System, and correspondingly, the state.
While I wasn’t born or raised in Wisconsin, I’ve spent the better part of two decades here. I grew up in a small town on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, but am a product of the UW System. I attended UW-Superior, by far the smallest of the comprehensive institutions. And yet I received expert advising (I graduated in just three and a half years), and an exceptional education; one that prepared me for acceptance into a top graduate school in my field. The particular professor who guided me through my undergraduate program recently retired, enticed by the VSIP also offered at that school, but also likely disheartened by decades of decline in support for higher education in Wisconsin.
My two sisters also graduated from UW schools, and I met my wife at UW-Superior. We connected while wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with “36.09(5)” — the state statute that gives students the right to be involved in decisions on campus that affect them. We actively participated in student government and took our rights and responsibilities very seriously. Even as students back in the late 1990s we complained about insufficient resources and inadequate attention to campus concerns. But the challenges we faced then are nothing compared to what we are up against now.
Many people have asked me over the last few years — and with increased frequency more recently — why I’ve chosen to stay amid all the cuts and public contempt. I’ve stayed because I love my adopted community and the hard-working, creative and caring people in it. I’ve stayed because I still have students who amaze and inspire me every single day. I’ve stayed because, like my colleagues, I am committed to the advancement of knowledge and believe in the benefits of giving all citizens the analytical tools to deal with the complex, diverse and ever-changing issues facing our society.
But the future does not look bright. The current path we are on is simply unsustainable. The long-term consequences of an under-funded university system is an under-educated populace. Nearly three-quarters of state senators and two-thirds of members of the state Assembly attended UW schools. Why do they not want future generations to enjoy the same quality of education they (as well as my family and I) experienced? Contact your local legislator and implore him or her to put the public back in public higher education. The future of our state depends on it.
Patchin is a professor of criminal justice at UW-Eau Claire.