Risk­ing one’s essence to sur­vive

In an ef­fort to adapt to fewer stu­dents and less money, strug­gling ru­ral col­leges are cut­ting cor­ners and of­fer­ing less, but it might be self-de­feat­ing

Santa Fe New Mexican - - LEARNING - By Mitch Smith

CSTEVENS POINT, Wis. han­cel­lor Bernie Pat­ter­son’s mes­sage to his cam­pus was blunt: To re­main sol­vent and rel­e­vant, his 125-year-old univer­sity needed to rein­vent it­self.

Some long-stand­ing lib­eral arts de­grees, in­clud­ing those in his­tory, French and Ger­man, would be elim­i­nated. Ca­reer-fo­cused pro­grams would be­come a key in­vest­ment. Tenured fac­ulty mem­bers could lose their jobs. The Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Stevens Point, Pat­ter­son ex­plained in a memo, could “no longer be all things to all peo­ple.”

Pat­ter­son’s plan came as Stevens Point and many other pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties in ru­ral Amer­ica face a cri­sis. Such col­leges have served as an­chors for their re­gions, ed­u­cat­ing gen­er­a­tions of res­i­dents.

Now stu­dent en­roll­ment has plum­meted, money from states has dropped and de­mo­graphic trends prom­ise even worse days ahead.

Uni­ver­si­ties like Stevens Point are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the op­po­site of what is hap­pen­ing at some of the na­tion’s most se­lec­tive schools, like Har­vard, North­west­ern and the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Berke­ley, where floods of ap­pli­ca­tions have led to over­whelm­ing num­bers of re­jected stu­dents. But crit­ics say that in try­ing to carve out a sus­tain­able path for Stevens Point, ad­min­is­tra­tors are risk­ing the very essence of a fouryear col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Part of the fear is, is this an at­tempt to re­ally kind of rad­i­cally change the iden­tity of this in­sti­tu­tion?” asked Jen­nifer Collins, a po­lit­i­cal-sci­ence pro­fes­sor, who won­dered aloud whether Stevens Point would be­come a “pre-pro­fes­sional, more poly­tech­nic type of univer­sity.”

Kim Mueller, 21, a se­nior who hopes to be­come a his­tory teacher at a Wis­con­sin high school, said her first re­ac­tion to the pro­posal was: “What is a univer­sity with­out a his­tory ma­jor?”

Nes­tled in a city of 26,000 res­i­dents, Stevens Point has seen its for­tunes rise and fall with its re­gion. Founded more than a cen­tury ago to train teach­ers, and dis­tin­guished by Old Main, an 1894 build­ing with a fa­mous cupola that over­looks the cam­pus, the col­lege grew as peo­ple moved to the area’s paper mills and farms.

The col­lege be­came a path­way to the mid­dle class, a re­spected place to get a bach­e­lor’s de­gree with­out spend­ing too much money or mov­ing too far from home. By the 1970s, it had strength­ened its lib­eral arts pro­grams and joined the state univer­sity sys­tem.

But in re­cent decades, trou­bling signs cropped up. Young fam­i­lies left ru­ral Wis­con­sin for Madi­son and Mil­wau­kee, which had their own Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin cam­puses. Fewer stu­dents grad­u­ated from high school in the area around Stevens Point, in­clud­ing a 14 per­cent drop in its home county from 2012-16. And un­der for­mer Gov. Scott Walker, state fund­ing de­clined and a manda­tory tu­ition freeze made it hard for the col­lege to make up the dif­fer­ence.

By last spring, the univer­sity, which has about 7,700 stu­dents, was look­ing at a two-year deficit of about $4.5 mil­lion. The state, which had pro­vided half the univer­sity’s bud­get in the 1970s, was now cov­er­ing only 17 per­cent of it.

“Some­times, I liken it to cli­mate change,” said Greg Sum­mers, the provost, who helped come up with the plan to re­make Stevens Point. “The higher-ed cli­mate has changed pro­foundly and it’s not go­ing back to the old nor­mal.”

The tur­moil is not unique to Stevens Point, where nearly half the stu­dents are the first gen­er­a­tion in their fam­ily to at­tend col­lege. Pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties far from ur­ban cen­ters are hurt­ing for stu­dents and money.

Al­most four hours from Chicago, Western Illi­nois Univer­sity elim­i­nated dozens of va­cant fac­ulty po­si­tions last year and an­nounced it would lay off 24 pro­fes­sors, in­clud­ing some with ten­ure.

The lo­ca­tions of col­lege cam­puses can be a re­flec­tion of a by­gone Amer­ica. Most uni­ver­si­ties were founded gen­er­a­tions ago, when ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties were thriv­ing and when trav­el­ing across a state to a larger ur­ban cam­pus was more com­pli­cated. As peo­ple moved to­ward cities and the Sun Belt, and as cars and planes con­nected the coun­try, many ru­ral uni­ver­si­ties have fallen on hard times.

At Stevens Point, ad­min­is­tra­tors are try­ing to make up for in­creas­ingly elu­sive fresh­men.

Their so­lu­tions: Re­cruit more mid­ca­reer adults to pro­grams such as nurs­ing. Pro­mote ma­jors such as busi­ness and ed­u­ca­tion with clear ca­reer paths. And in­vest in teach­ing spe­cial­ties with lo­cal ap­peal — forestry or fish­eries man­age­ment.

In the com­ing months, after a fi­nal round of cam­pus re­view, Pat­ter­son will present a list of pro­posed changes to the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin re­gents. Sum­mers, the provost, said that by mak­ing hard de­ci­sions now and “do­ing fewer things bet­ter,” the univer­sity could find a more stable fu­ture.

TIM GRUBER/NEW YORK TIMES

Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Stevens Point stu­dents work dur­ing a lab Nov. 27 as part of a plant bi­ol­ogy class. Stu­dents and dol­lars have plum­meted at small col­leges like Stevens Point. Lead­ers are scram­bling for fixes.

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