Merger or bust

(First published in the March 14, 2019 issue of City Pages)

It’s now called UW–Stevens Point’s Wausau branch, but if the campus continues to shed students and faculty, how can it recover?

Screen Shot 2019-03-06 at 5.34.07 PM.png

Two years ago when Grace Stolen decided to make the move to UW-Marathon County from her hometown of Waunakee, near Madison, UWMC had a lot going for it. She liked the idea of starting out in a two-year college, and she liked that Wausau, a city of roughly 39,000 people, has some pretty cool stuff going on in the arts and entertainment. It’s an affordable place with plenty of fun things to do off campus.

“It looked like Wausau was the most interesting campus of the two-year colleges,” Stolen, 19, says on a Thursday afternoon in the student union. She liked the idea of being in a dense, urban community.

Today, the purple color adorning the walls of the campus signifies its new status as a branch campus of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, in the major restructuring of the UW System that began last year.

Visitors might also notice the students on the Wausau campus, or lack thereof. Where is everyone?

A shrinking student population is one of the biggest problems facing the new UWSP-Wausau campus, as well as its parent campus in Stevens Point, about 34 miles south. Student counts dropped in Wausau from nearly 1,000 in 2015 to just under 600 this year. UWSP’s enrollment has similarly nosedived.

Stolen says there are still great teachers on campus and a lot of potential, but has to admit the place can sometimes feel like a ghost town.

Stolen wasn’t around 10 years ago on campus, but I was. As a graduate of UWMC (and UWSP) who attended both fresh out of high school and later as a returning adult, I remember packed halls in the main Wausau building on Stewart Avenue. Rarely were the hallways empty, except later in the evening. I recall snowy afternoons with scores of students studying and socializing in the student union. UWMC had a reputation for academic quality, faculty who were well connected with the public, and a bustling student scene.

On this recent Thursday afternoon with Stolen, we are two of only three total people hanging out in the union. I hardly pass a soul walking down the hallway. A subsequent visit in the morning reveals a little more activity, but hardly the buzz seen even in more recent years past.

And it’s not only the students who are sparse. An alarming number of teachers have left Wausau’s campus, including most of the English Department. UWSP administrators announcing a plan to cut 13 majors (later cut to about half that) including English didn’t help in the retention area.

In the midst of this turmoil, administrators are desperately trying to retool the university’s programs to make it more appealing and attract students. Mimicking the success of technical colleges, they’re trying to design programs that enhance students’ marketability after graduation.

Next year the Wausau campus’s curriculum will be fully integrated with Stevens Point’s. A new MBA (Masters of Business Administration) program in Wausau will kick off, with students already flocking to sign up. Accelerated degree programs are in the works.

What’s concerning is a previous example set elsewhere in the U.S. The University of Texas at Austin tried a similar retooling and consolidation starting in 2016, and has since scrapped the idea. Their situation — budget troubles paired with declining enrollments — ring familiar, although their plan included some far more radical ideas, such as turning the Austin campus into an online learning hub to appeal nationwide.

UW administrators hope their plan will work, because the campuses needs to stop the bleeding, which according to the UW System’s accountability dashboard, seems to be worse at UWSP and its campuses than elsewhere in the system. The next couple of years will be critical.

Bad numbers


UWSP-Wausau student Grace Stolen: The staff and student losses have hurt morale. Most students on the Wausau campus applied when it was still UWMC, she says.

The biggest problem for UWSP and its Wausau campus is that both campuses are hemorrhaging students. Stevens Point’s enrollment peaked in 2012 at 9,677 students and have been dropping precipitously since. In 2017, only 8,208 students registered for the fall semester. This academic year it’s down to 7,725 —a more than 20% decrease compared to six years ago.

Under the UW restructuring, the four-year UWSP is absorbing the two-year campuses of Wausau and Marshfield, previously under the UW Colleges banner. This is year one of a two-year phased plan.

On the Wausau campus, the enrollment drop is even more severe than at UW-Stevens Point.

In spring 2015 there were 998 students at the Wausau campus. For the spring semester this year, only 589 students signed up for classes.

For added perspective, consider that in fall 2012, the headcount was 1,279 students (there was a peak of students at all post-secondary schools following the Great Recession). Enrollment has plummeted by more than half in seven years.

Faculty turnover rates in the UW System as a whole has increased in recent years, but a “spike” in 2016 of 8% has turned out to be the norm ever since, according to an accountability dashboard included on the UW-System’s website. In 2017 overall UW faculty turnover rate was 7.2% and 7.3% in 2018.

UW-Stevens Point and the UW-Colleges system were hit much worse. In 2018, UWSP saw a 10.5% turnover rate; there was even more turnover in 2016.

And in 2018, following the announcement that the UW-Colleges would merge with several of the state’s four-year universities, the faculty/staff turnover at the two-year campuses spiked to 11.6%—nearly double the previous year and the highest in recent history. (Individual data was not provided for the Wausau campus.)

While staff has remained relatively steady in the past few years at UWSP, the two-year UW-Colleges staff dropped significantly as the campuses were consolidated. Overall the 13 UW-Colleges campuses once employed nearly 1,200 faculty and staff. Now it’s down to around 900.

Low pay hasn’t helped. Salaries throughout the entire UW System in 2016-17 — the last year information was available on the UW System dashboard — was the worst since 2009-10. The average UW faculty member made 20% less than peers at similar institutions, and that’s even taking into account costs of living adjustments to ensure comparable results. That pay disparity looks even worse if you exclude UW-Madison, which means everyone outside of that flagship campus was earning even less. (The data did not include UWSP or the UW Colleges specifically.)

At UWSP-Wausau, the new name for UW-Marathon County, voluntary faculty exits included several English department teachers leaving last year, including its chair Holly Hassel, and Katie Kalish.

UWSP’s announcement that it was eliminating 13 majors hit professors in those fields hard, Kalish says. She cried when she saw English was one of the majors originally on the chopping block (since restored under the revised proposal).

“That’s really scary,” says Kalish, who transferred to the Baraboo two-year campus for the past school year, now under UW–Eau Claire. “You work hard to get tenure, do a good job to serve your students and then to have the rug pulled out from under you like that? It’s frightening.”

Kalish liked teaching at the two-year college level, and she prided herself on understanding her students, many of whom come from non-traditional backgrounds. She had roots in Wausau and didn’t relish the idea of moving.

Kalish says she thinks it will be challenging for the Wausau campus to attract students and retain faculty. Many are aware of UWSP’s financial problems and the backlash from the proposal to cut majors doesn’t do the university any favors, Kalish says. “It felt like being a teacher on a sinking ship.”

If there is one positive from the merger, Kalish says, it’s that long-time UWMC professor Ann Herda-Rapp is now in charge as the new executive—a position similar to a college dean. “She is awesome, and super committed to making it work,” Kalish says.

Keith Montgomery recently had been named regional dean of four, two-year campuses, including Marshfield and Marathon County. Under the restructure, Montgomery transitioned into a role with UWSP’s administration. Herda-Rapp last summer was named the campus executive of the Wausau branch.

Cuts and additions on the horizon


Ann Herda-Rapp: The MBA program is the first of what could be more accelerated degree programs at the Wausau campus

UWSP officials announced last year that the university planned to cut 13 majors from its curriculum, and it’s safe to say it didn’t go over well. Cutting those majors didn’t necessarily mean classes in those fields wouldn’t exist. English is a core requirement of any bachelor’s degree. But the idea was to focus on majors that would have a stronger chance of leading directly to jobs, and new majors in fields to meet current employment demands.

The move drew criticism from current and former faculty and students on campus, and high profile national sources. The attention was something no university wants: the idea it has turned its back on academics. Students marched in protest. Stories ran in the Washington Post and New York Times.

That plan has since scaled back the cuts to include French, German, geography/geology, history and two and three-dimensional art.

But even that scaled back plan is drawing criticism. The Stevens Point campus’ Regent Policy Document Consultative Committee reviews any proposal to discontinue a program that would lead to the layoff of any tenured faculty. In its latest report released March 1 and sent to City Pages, that committee challenged UWSP administrators and voted unanimously to oppose the elimination of those majors.

The biggest changes are yet to come, university leaders say. The UW campuses are eight months into what will be a two-year transition process to merge two-year colleges with nearby four-year universities. Next year the Wausau and Marshfield campus’s curriculum will transition to that of UWSP’s — all courses will have the same numbering system and be identical. The change will make transfers easier and lead the way for more degrees to be earned on those smaller campuses.

One big change coming to the Wausau campus in fall 2019 is the MBA. Kevin Neuman, professor of economics at UWSP, says the program came from dozens of focus groups with community members and business leaders. The program is meant to go beyond theory, Neuman says, and is likely a signal of the direction UWSP is trying to go: fast and nimble, with marketable skills.

The whole MBA could be completed in a year, using semester break sessions to get it done. Intended primarily for fresh graduates or professionals early in their career, the program could be completed part time as well, and will be a hybrid class mix of classroom and online elements.

That’s the most common scenario of the future, says Gretel Stock-Kupperman, UWSP Dean of University College. There has been a shift to online classrooms but the most common will be the hybrid format, which still allows for face time with educators but also frees up schedules for individually paced learning.

The MBA is also the first of what could be more accelerated degree programs, says Herda-Rapp, campus executive at UWSP at Wausau. New bachelor’s degree programs being rolled out likely will allow students to finish in three years instead of the traditional four, using year-round sessions and remote learning.

More students already are taking online classes, Herda-Rapp says, not only at the Wausau campus, but throughout the entire UW system.

The new course designs and offerings of a combined system will help the university recruit high school students from around the region in the future, says Stock-Kupperman. There’s also a lot of opportunity to attract more non-traditional, returning adult students, who may already have “some college” but not have completed their bachelor’s degrees.

Stolen, who is the shared governance director on the UW-Stevens Point at Wausau campus, says the staff and student losses have hurt morale. She’s well aware of the poor student and faculty retention rates of the Wausau and main campus, and they’re concerning. Many students have felt the changes were abrupt and not always communicated well. “Most students here now didn’t apply to go to UWSP,” Stolen says. “It’s weird to have that identity thrust on you.”

Many students at the Wausau campus struggle to find classes to satisfy their major, Stolen says, as course offerings become more limited. (City Pages couldn’t pin down the exact number of both staff and courses offered now in comparison to, say, five years ago, but it’s safe to say both are down markedly).

But there is hope, Stolen says. Like Kalish, she points to Herda-Rapp being put in charge as a positive. “She’s a great administrator for the campus,” Stolen says. And though many faculty have left, the Wausau campus still has some really great instructors. If the Wausau campus is to turn it around, its best resource might be in them.