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The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century

Wisconsin built a public higher-education system that was admired around the world. But it may not withstand a tech-hungry economy.

For many years, Wisconsin had one of the finest public-university systems in the country. It was built on an idea: that the university’s influence should not end at the campus’s borders, that professors—and the students they taught—should “search for truth” to help state legislators write laws, aid the community with technical skills, and generally improve the quality of life across the state.

Many people attribute the Wisconsin Idea, as it is known, to Charles Van Hise, the president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 to 1918. “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state,” Hise said in an address in 1905. “If our beloved institution reaches this ideal it will be the first perfect state university.” His idea was written into the mission of the state’s university system, and over time that system became a model for what public higher education could be.

But the backbone of the idea almost went away in 2015, when Governor Scott Walker released his administration’s budget proposal, which included a change to the university’s mission. The Wisconsin Idea would be tweaked. The “search for truth” would be cut in favor of a charge to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

To those outside Wisconsin, the proposed change might have seemed small. After all, what’s so bad about an educational system that propels people into a high-tech economy? But to many Wisconsinites, the change struck at the heart of the state’s identity. They argued that the idea—with its core tenets of truth, public service, and “improving the human condition”—is what makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin.

Walker ultimately scrapped his attempt to alter the Wisconsin Idea, claiming that his administration hadn’t meant to change it, that it was just a “drafting error.” And so the Wisconsin Idea was preserved—at least in an official sense. But though the words survived intact, many Wisconsinites believe that in the years since, the change Walker had proposed has taken place nevertheless. And one of the state’s institutions, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, is the epicenter of that change.

In mid-November, the university announced its plans to stop offering six liberal-arts majors, including geography, geology, French, German, two- and three-dimensional art, and history. The plan stunned observers, many of whom argued that at a time when Nazism is resurgent, society needs for people to know history, even if the economy might not. But the university said it just was not possible: After decades of budget cuts, the most extreme of which came under Walker, Stevens Point no longer had the resources to sustain these six majors.

The state's recent gubernatorial election showed that millions of Wisconsinites want to preserve the values the university system has long embodied. The governor-elect, Tony Evers, won his race in part because he campaigned on reclaiming Wisconsin’s status as a standard-bearer for higher education. But Evers has a fight ahead of him: The state's Republican-controlled legislature has made it abundantly clear that they are not about to cooperate with Evers’s agenda.  Despite Evers’s election, the Wisconsin Idea may not live for much longer.  How Wisconsin got here—and whether it will get out—is a story that reveals the tensions of a state that feels it must choose between the needs of a tech-hungry economy and those of a uninformed civil society, and is going to somehow try and satisfy both.

In November 2017, Lee Willis wasn’t terribly concerned. The chairs of each department at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point were assessing their programs ahead of a biweekly meeting with the dean; Willis, the chair of the history department, may not have been feeling great, but he was at least upbeat. “I felt like the department had really diversified its curriculum in a way to shore us up,” he told me. The department offered a history major, and much of the coursework for an interdisciplinary major in international relations and a social-science major for those pursuing a teaching certificate.

The college, alongside the rest of the UW system, was facing major budget cuts. The state was spending nearly 23 percent fewer inflation-adjusted dollars per student than it had a decade earlier, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). On top of that, a tuition freeze was in place—which was good for students, but tough for an institution that somehow needed to fund its programs.

Colleges in this situation have little choice but to start cutting, Michael Mitchell, a policy analyst at CBPP, told me. Many institutions have to consolidate programs, restrict course offerings, stop hiring, furlough staff, transition some faculty from tenure track to adjunct positions, and reduce campus services that students rely on, such as mental-health services or library hours, Mitchell said. Flagship campuses, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, are usually safe, but not the Stevens Points of the world.

That’s the position the university found itself in during the 2017 chairs’ meeting. By that point, administrators had already broken down the number of students enrolled as majors in each department—at least those aside from the STEM fields, Willis said. Sure, there may have been signs of trouble for his program before, Willis said, that should have raised his concern, but that meeting was when he thought, for sure: “They’ve got us marked.”

In March 2018, the school’s administration offered a proposal to deal with the deficit. Cuts were necessary, the administration said. Liberal-arts staples such as English, philosophy, political science, and history would have to be eliminated. All told, the university planned to get rid of 13 majors. Not enough students were enrolled in them to make them worth the cost, the university argued. “We’re facing some changing enrollment behaviors,” Greg Summers, the provost and vice chancellor at Stevens Point, told me. “And students are far more cost-conscious than they used to be.”

Instead, administrators wanted to focus the school’s limited resources on the academic areas that students were flocking to and that the state’s economy could use straightaway—though they maintained that the liberal arts more generally would remain central to the curriculum, even if these specific majors were gone. “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,” Bernie Patterson, the institution’s chancellor, said in a message to the campus. The changes would reflect “a national move among students towards career pathways,” administrators argued. The proposal planned to add majors in chemical engineering, computer-information systems, conservation-law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management, and marketing. By focusing more on fields that led directly to careers, the school could better provide what businesses wanted—and students, in theory, would have an easier time finding jobs and career success.

Faculty members had been expecting cuts, but nothing nearly that severe. “I was personally surprised about the radicalness of the change,” Ed Miller, a political-science professor at the university, told Wisconsin Public Radio. “We do live in a democracy, and universities are supposed to be preparing people to participate in a democracy, besides participate in the workforce, although that’s certainly important.”

But beyond that, Thomas O’Guinn, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me, the changes flew smack in the face of the Wisconsin Idea. “The idea that we would just forsake everything for [career-focused schools] is not a Wisconsin Idea thing at all,” he said.

Fierce backlash to the proposal from students, faculty, and alumni pushed the administration to reconsider its original plan. By the time the final proposal was released in mid-November 2018, it was less expansive, though still forceful. Six programs would be cut, including the history major. The university seemed to be eyeing degree programs with low numbers of graduates, and nationally, the number of graduates from bachelor’s programs in history has had the steepest decline of any major in recent years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

If the proposal, which is now in the middle of a public-comment period, is finalized, history classes will still be offered, but Willis said that cutting the major may ultimately lead to a reduction of staff and upper-level courses, such as the spring seminar on the Holocaust and its major’s emphasis on race and ethnicity. To Willis, this isn’t just an educational loss, but a societal one as well. “You never know when a historical metaphor is going to arise,” he quipped, pointing to the recent incident in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where high-school students gestured the Nazi salute in a photo.

The words of the Wisconsin Idea haven’t changed, but the administration is gutting it in favor of career education, Willis said. I feel like the liberal arts are sort of being asked to line up behind job preparation,” he told me, “rather than studying the liberal arts for the liberal arts’ sake as a public good.”

Greg Summers is an environmental historian by trade. He received his doctorate at Madison, and he has worked at Stevens Point his entire career, starting in 2001. But it wasn’t his own department—the history department—that led him to the university.

Instead, Stevens Point’s renowned College of Natural Resources drew him in. The college produces many of the state’s foresters, wildlife managers, and environmental engineers. “I came here wanting to make sure that every one of those folks that we trained in the College of Natural Resources were going to go out with an understanding that history mattered,” Summers said, “and that it was relevant to their professional work.” Many colleges, he argues, fail to give their STEM grads that broader understanding, due in large part to the general-education curriculum.

“We hear a lot from employers that they don’t want to choose between graduates who have some technical ability versus a graduate who has a liberal-arts major,” Summers said. “They really want both of those things.” He said he’s working to position Stevens Point to provide that balance. “We’re trying to search for ways to better integrate the liberal-arts education that we have always provided into all of our majors,” he said, so that students don’t have to choose between a major in the liberal arts and “a major that doesn’t really engage them meaningfully.” Essentially, he said, selecting a major in the hopes of getting a job shouldn’t prevent a student from receiving a basic liberal-arts education.

But he’s had a hard time getting faculty on board with the administration’s way of achieving that goal. Late last month, more than 100 current and former faculty and staff at the university called for the removal of Summers as well as Chancellor Bernie Patterson. “While Provost Summers was hiring more faculty than he now thinks we can afford, UWSP undertook a lengthy strategic planning process.” they wrote. “But excellent adjectives, no matter how elegantly arrayed, do not constitute a strategic plan. Instead of being guided by a consistent vision, UWSP’s leadership has instead been erratic, misguided, and in some cases even incompetent.”

Summers, however, argues that the strategy isn’t reactive—or inconsistent, for that matter. Instead, he said, the university is trying to think “10 years down the road,” to what the students and the state will need. The demand, Summers said, “is coming from working adults on college campuses who cannot come to campus on Tuesday morning at 10 to attend a three-credit class, and who may not be looking for a full-fledged baccalaureate degree.” Rather, “they might be in need of knowledge and learning and professional advancement,” he told me. Besides, he argued, “too often when people have these conversations, they tend to conflate the value of the major with the value of the discipline.” This isn’t an attack on the liberal arts, he said, but a push to open up liberal-arts courses to more students in significant ways.

Summers, too, lays claim to the Wisconsin Idea, and has proposed an “Institute for the Wisconsin Idea” that will serve as the hub that generates a revamped general-education curriculum. “We want to really give [the institute] first priority at defining the curriculum in the most meaningful way we can for our students and making sure it’s integrated with their chosen professional pathway,” he said.

“We need to make sure that knowledge is relevant, and it’s applied,” he said. The university’s competitiveness in the future higher-education market depends on it.

Both Willis and Summers agree on one critical point: What happens in Wisconsin could become a model for higher education across the country. What divides them is whether that would be a good thing.

One thing is sure, however: Financial realities such as those facing Stevens Point are not far off for many regional institutions. “The reality is that we just can’t be everything to everyone, regardless of the public-good value of some of the coursework,” Summers said. “Those constraints are very real.” There are few encouraging signs—if any—that states will once again pump dollars into state colleges to get them back to 2008 levels and, as Mitchell of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, those levels still were not enough to make college affordable for most students.

But as much as this is a tale of a resource-strapped institution, it’s also a tale of something else—something that has nothing to do with the school’s budget and everything to do with the state of higher education in the 21st century. And that’s because even if the state were to miraculously open the coffers for state institutions, Summers said he would likely still eliminate the history major and others in favor of more focus on STEM fields bolstered by a broader general-education curriculum.

“If we suddenly received more dollars,” he told me, “we’d have to ask some pretty hard questions about where we’d want to invest those dollars—and again, I’d point to enrollment figures.” If the demand is for the fields with clearly prescribed career pathways, that’s where the resources should flow, he said. “We are obligated to make sure that we’re serving those students in the best way possible, and for that money, we need to focus on the liberal-arts core curriculum of the university,” he told me.

To Willis, this sounds like the manifestation of Scott Walker’s 2015 plan, shirking the “search for truth” in favor of meeting economic needs. “I think that’s what our administration is thinking about,” he said, “that our role here in central Wisconsin is to anticipate what jobs are going to be needed and to develop programs accordingly." The problem, he fears, is that that alone will never be enough.

The national conversation around higher education is shifting, raising doubts about whether the liberal arts—as we have come to know them—are built to survive a tech-hungry economy.