As strug­gling ru­ral col­leges fight to survive, dras­tic changes will elim­i­nate some ma­jors

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Mitch Smith

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.

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