As struggling rural colleges fight to survive, drastic changes will eliminate some majors
STEVENS POINT, Wis. – Chancellor 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.”
His plan came as many 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 – and build a model for other struggling, regionally focused universities – administrators are risking the very essence of a four-year 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 in the middle of the state, 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 areas for Madison and Milwaukee, which had their own University of Wisconsin campuses. Fewer students graduated from high school in the area. And under former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican whose term ended Monday, 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.
The turmoil is not unique to Stevens Point, where nearly half the students are the first generation in their family to attend college. In large parts of the Midwest and Northeast, public universities far from urban centers are hurting for students and money. And they are facing painful choices.
The locations of college campuses can be a reflection of a bygone America. Most universities were founded when rural communities were thriving and when traveling across a state to a larger urban campus was 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.
“There is and ought to be a bit of a scramble to redefine and resituate themselves,” said David Tandberg, a vice president for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “There’s nothing they can do about birthrates. That’s something they have no control about. So it’s opening up different markets and offering different services.”
At Stevens Point, administrators are trying to make up for increasingly elusive freshmen. Their solutions: Recruit more midcareer adults to enroll in programs such as nursing. Promote majors such as business and education with clear career paths. And invest in teaching people specialties with local appeal – forestry or fisheries management – on a campus with a 280-acre nature conservancy that doubles as an outdoor laboratory for students.
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.
The proposal is especially bitter for liberal arts professors, who have viewed their disciplines as the backbone of the college experience but now fear losing their jobs. Stevens Point administrators have winnowed an initial list of majors to eliminate, but some faculty members said they remained queasy, uncertain about what additional changes the future will bring.
“I’m afraid it’s done a great deal of damage to the university’s reputation with current high school students and current high school teachers,” said Lee Willis, chairman of Stevens Point’s history department.