My undergraduate experience was broken up into two eras: the first was spent at a private ‘university’ that was essentially a glorified vocational school churning out ministers with a half-hearted regard for the liberal arts or professional degrees in favor of continued indoctrination in the sponsoring Christian denomination.
The second was escaping from that place, sacrificing a plurality of my academic credits and essentially starting over at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a philosophy and religious studies student. It was there where I was able to trade my angst for serious academics, and where I thrived as a student and grew as a person. Without my experience at UWSP, without a clear path studying philosophy, without tremendous faculty who were as challenging as they were fair, I would not have the opportunities I have today, the job I have, the graduate degree I earned afterward.
The ability to earn that degree and chart a new course for my life, to have encountered great faculty and fellow students, to have helped peers with their reading and writing in the disciplines, to be a vibrant part of student life; I am a better, more well-rounded person for the time I spent at UWSP.
(The fact that I completed my undergraduate degree for the cost of less than one semester at the institution I originally attended is also not lost on me.)
So, when a good friend (and fellow UWSP alum) shared this disheartening press release from Monday on social media, I was deeply grieved. Citing “declining financial resources, demographic changes with fewer students in K-12 schools and rising competition among public and private universities,” the university has proposed gutting 13 undergrad programs (while retaining courses from them, more on that later) while expanding eight other programs and enhancing eight others. Those 13 programs are all underneath the umbrella of the humanities or liberal arts. The 16 they seem to bolster are all professional or STEM programs.
People like myself, or my friend Andy, would not have avenues for growth that we enjoyed. Andy is an outstanding writer, academe and professor. I, despite my longing to move forward in studying philosophy and religion, ended up in a STEM career while writing about baseball for next to nothing. Neither one of us would be the people we are without the time we spent in study in Stevens Point (or the many, many cups of coffee over conversations of how badly we wanted to get out of there.) In fact, the academic rigor I underwent as a Pointer suited me well for the many challenges–academic, professional and personal alike–I faced since earning my BA and entering a job where I was a stranger in a strange land and had to learn web development on the fly nearly three years ago.
To be sure, a certain portion of the populace is outraged for partisan reasons and this would seem to fit their narrative for how the state doesn’t value education, so on and so forth. I, for one, do not buy into those presuppositions for any number of reasons, but I do share in their outrage that the UW System would be open to essentially gutting what makes the university a university. This is not a conservative or liberal issue; this is a trans-partisan matter that should rightly earn the consternation of all people who value a quality, well-rounded educational experience.
It should anger every UWSP alumnus, particularly those of us who lived in the Collins Classroom Center for most of our academic careers.
One of my professors, a well-respected academic, educator and administrator who would undoubtedly be affected by the proposal to gut her department, put it thusly: Philosophy goes well with everything. This is more than a mere quip, it is the absolute bedrock upon which any other enterprise is based. My philosophy degree–and corresponding religious studies work–taught me vital methods of critical thinking and diplomatic and empathetic interpersonal communication because, beyond the trappings and nomenclature, everything is language.
Incidentally, the religious studies program was left unmentioned and presumably unscathed, though it was not its own major.
Everything is language. When I started my day job, I knew WordPress and a very crude sense of HTML I picked up in junior high. Once I moved past basic tasks in our CMS and into code, I was lost…until I recognized that code is not math, code is language. As it turns out, there’s a reason they call them programming languages. And, like any language, it takes time to observe, learn and begin interacting with them. Philosophy allowed and empowered me to make the leap and not be paralyzed by the fear of something completely foreign to my understanding.
My boss is, too, a UWSP alumnus from the WDMD/CIS/whatever they’re calling it this week program. Our shared alma mater was not an insignificant factor in his deciding to bring me on board; neither were the cognitive assessments I was required to take. Both being a part of and built by the UWSP community were essential to my ability to even get in the door at my place of employ.
Now that the school is looking to cut the head off their humanities program–make no mistake, there is reason neither to retaining faculty in these fields nor any incentive for high-potential would-be faculty to go to work for a university where there is no real department or academic program for their subject matter expertise.
UWSP is diminishing its own importance and prestige by taking these steps, reducing their offerings in non-core fields to the equivalent of any number of two-year UW System colleges or a vocational school. There is nothing wrong with a vocational or technical college, but the point of university education to expand horizons whereas the tech school is more geared toward job readiness. The American university climate has already marginalized the broadening aspects by reducing general courses down to credits that must be earned through endurance rather than placing value on those experiences as a way to expand horizons or even make a change in intended studies and life course. Doing this kills what little motivation was there to take these courses seriously for student or faculty.
In the same way that most of us have changed our minds on what we wanted to do or who we wanted to be since you or I were 17 or 18 years old, does not stripping liberal arts programs too strip young people of new, different opportunities? Are we doing a disservice to the students now in the [likely futile] hopes of bigger benefactors later?
The answer to both, given the intended course of action, is a resounding yes. This is not forward thinking. Implementing this solution is nothing if not a Pyrrhic victory.
As an alumnus and someone who owes the totality of my life, such as it is, to the experiences I had at UWSP, I join the growing chorus of those who vehemently oppose these measures. To move forward this way is to rob students of the rich experiences the Wisconsin Idea affords. We may disagree on the politics of the matter, but we see quite clearly the same acute problems this proposal engenders. As such, we urge reconsideration by administration, student government and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.
Frankly, it points in the wrong direction.