Restructuring -- and Re-Missioning -- the University of Wisconsin System

Will merging institutions strengthen the system or hasten its decline, asks Tara DaPra, who has taught at one of its four-year universities as well as in its community colleges.

November 29, 2017
 
 
Students at UW Marinette

On Oct. 11, 2017, University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross proposed that the UW Colleges, a system of two-year liberal arts institutions, merge with seven of the state’s four-year universities. Just under a month later, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents voted to approve this merger.

UW Green Bay, a four-year institution where I teach English composition and creative writing, will merge with three of the two-year colleges: UW Marinette, an hour to our north, and UW Manitowoc and UW Sheboygan, 45 and 60 minutes to the south. Our chancellor has dubbed this “Project Coastal,” because each city resides along Wisconsin’s eastern coast, bordering Lake Michigan or the bay of Green Bay, Lake Michigan’s largest inlet.

Many faculty and staff members across the system were blindsided by the announcement and worry about what this merger means for our departments, our curricula, our institutional missions, our jobs. At the four-year universities, what some are calling the “parent” campuses, some are concerned their new stepchildren will sink us with their budgets in the red. Those at the two-year colleges worry their jobs will be at risk and their autonomy subsumed by the new “partner.” Are they now colonies at the mercy of a more powerful institution? What will this new university system look like? And what influence can the two-year campuses have in its creation?

I have been teaching at UW Green Bay for nine years; for five of those years, I also taught in the UW Colleges. I am an adjunct, a nomad, one who takes work where I can get it, spreading myself thin between teaching online and in the classroom -- freshman comp in the English composition department and creative writing in the English department. I have spent most of my teaching years saying yes to every scrap of work that’s offered, as I can lose classes due to enrollment issues or the whims of my bosses at any moment (or at least up to seven days before the semester begins, according to my contracts, which are always semester to semester and pending funds).

But this hardscrabble teaching life has been incredibly instructive. I have seen how both institutions function and what each does well. I can see how this merger could strengthen the UW system or how it could hasten its decline.

The whys of the merger are known and unknown. Wisconsin is faced with a decline in college-age students, though some people dispute the urgency -- and accuracy -- of this claim. More to the point, the budget pressures have been intensified by the $250 million cut to the system’s budget in 2015-17, courtesy of Republican Governor Scott Walker and a Republican-controlled Legislature. This translates to an average 11 percent reduction in state support, which hit the UW Colleges, with their smaller campuses, lower student tuition and fewer alternative revenue streams, especially hard. The University of Wisconsin System has a budget of $6 billion, and today only $1 billion comes from state funding.

The UW Colleges function as points of access for students scattered across Wisconsin, offering a guaranteed transfer agreement with the comprehensive four-year universities. They are open-access institutions that serve students who want to get their start close to home and in the intimacy of a small campus, but for roughly half the price tag.

In his press release announcing the proposed merger, Cross argued, “The proposed restructuring will allow the UW system to better address current and projected enrollment and financial challenges at the two-year institutions, while maintaining the important UW presence in local communities.” What he didn’t say is that closing one or more of the two-year campuses, an idea that’s been floated over the past couple of years, would be political suicide for whoever represents that district. In an Oct. 27 governance group meeting, Cross reportedly said, “It's critically important that we don't lose our access portals. Without the university presence, all you have left is a bar and a convenience store.”

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the system estimates 2,500 fewer students have enrolled this year compared to last. And yet, according to a local news report, this fall UW Green Bay has 7,158 students enrolled, “up nearly 400 from 6,779 students in fall 2015.” That’s an increase of nearly 6 percent. How can this be? The report goes on to credit the increase to “new courses being offered and success UW Green Bay students have finding a job after graduation.”

Such growth appears to be most likely the result of institutions trying to put more butts in seats. Following the decline in state support, coupled with an ongoing tuition freeze, institutions in the system have become heavily dependent on bringing in more tuition-paying students to cover operating expenses. In doing so, at least some of the four-years are, for all intents and purposes, becoming open-enrollment institutions, thereby appropriating the mission of the two-year campuses. The system is cannibalizing itself.

The comprehensives have the advantage of bigger campuses, shinier facilities and more prestigious faculty, so of course they seem more attractive to students than their local two-year extension. As a result, the two-year colleges are hemorrhaging students, with declines in enrollment ranging from 29 to 52 percent when measured (rather unfairly) against the 2010 recession-era peak. But any way you slice it, insolvency is in the air. And so Cross’s plan is clever in one respect: by combining the systems, the four-years have to take responsibility for this problem. They can no longer simply poach students from two-year campuses. They will soon be married into them.

A Question of Direction

But can the four-years provide students with the support they need? Do they even know what that support should look like? In a letter to the Board of Regents, published in the Wausau Pilot and Review, members of the UW Colleges Faculty Council lamented, “The curriculum and support programs we offer [at the UW Colleges] for underprepared students who come to college with prior educational experiences that may not be aligned with college expectations -- but who have the potential and capacity to develop those skills -- simply are not offered at the comprehensives. If we hope to increase retention and graduation rates of students -- wide ranges of students from wide ranges of backgrounds -- these programs must be increased, not decreased, if the stated goal of increasing student success and attainment of degrees is to be achieved.”

The two-year colleges aren’t simply open-enrollment institutions in name -- they put the mission of support to first-generation and at-risk college students in the forefront of every decision they make. And they have success in doing so. The UW System Office of Policy Analysis and Research reports that students who transfer from the two-year to the four-year institutions are more likely to graduate than students who transfer among the four-years.

Given the demographic shifts and the decline in state support, the four-year institutions have been awakened to the concept of retention -- finding ways to support the students they enroll, to remove roadblocks to graduation. At UW Green Bay, we’ve seen some nods in this direction: we now have a director of the Center for Students in Transition, Denise Bartell, who works to increase student success and engagement. She’s implemented an “early-alert” grade report so that struggling students can be helped early in the semester. Bartell has also established an emergency grant fund so that students with a financial emergency aren’t forced to drop out of college to pay for a car repair or unexpected medical bill.

Chancellor Gary Miller has previously proposed “re-missioning” UW Green Bay to put more focus on research and STEM and to align us with the needs of local businesses. Not surprisingly, that did not sit well with many liberal arts faculty who are passionate about the university’s interdisciplinary focus. But then, in his Project Coastal memo after the merger announcement, he wrote that the institution “will become a four-campus university. The university will operate under a single vision and mission.” What will that mission be? What will take precedent? Can a university focused on research also care significantly about teaching and student retention?

The two-year colleges, with their tradition of serving first-generation college students, many of whom are underprepared and simply don’t feel they belong, are old hats at student support. The English department, in particular, has been on the cutting edge of developmental education reform: they’ve implemented placement measures to provide students with a more accurate and focused foundation for their first year of college, created tutorial-style support courses, and have received a Gates Foundation grant to gather data on these innovations, with the goal of accelerating student progress toward their degrees. What will become of this curriculum, this leadership, this research, all of which has the potential to shape course design and retention rates at universities across the country?

My first years of teaching at UW Green Bay were brutal. I worked constantly. I second-guessed every decision I made and constantly felt like I was failing. In the eyes of my boss, teaching evaluations were the only judge of my abilities. They brought me such anxiety that I could hardly bring myself to read them. There were -- and are -- many good teachers at this university, but the institutional administrative support for those practices is patchwork -- strong in some departments, nonexistent in others.

Then I began teaching at UW Marinette, a rural outpost with a shipping and manufacturing history at the edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The challenge of working with underprepared, first-generation college students, students with shaky confidence who didn’t understand the conventions of college life, who didn’t know how to ask questions, who didn’t feel they were “college material,” taught me so much about careful course design and transparency, and prompted me to simply rethink my own biases and assumptions about what college teaching is. If you want to learn how to teach, teach developmental writing in a two-year institution. The UW Colleges made me the teacher I am today.

But I couldn’t have succeeded in such a challenging environment without the support and wisdom of so many amazing colleagues, who mentored me, supported me and, above all, created paths for my success. The English department in the UW Colleges gave adjunct instructors like me the same kinds of assistance that they provided for tenure-track faculty -- and for students. I wasn’t just an adjunct, someone to be cast aside if my teaching evaluations weren’t good enough, just as students weren’t just butts in seats left to sink or swim. Instead, I was someone worth training and investing in. Likewise, faculty members know their students can succeed, provided they’re given the right support, in the form of appropriate placement, small class sizes and well-trained instructors -- even the adjuncts. It also helps that those adjuncts have a path to promotion with title increases, pay raises and benefits. Teachers who are supported can in turn support their students.

Ultimately, the UW Colleges will cease to exist. In a letter to the editor in Madison’s The Cap Times, Cassandra Phillips, UW Colleges writing program coordinator, warns that “the curriculum and support system the UW Colleges provide the state’s most vulnerable students will be lost with this merger.” It’s my deepest hope that it won’t -- that, rather, the UW Colleges can transform their four-year “parent” institutions for the better. We will see what the future holds.

Bio

Tara DaPra, who teaches English composition and creative writing, is an associate lecturer at UW Green Bay and formerly a senior lecturer at UW Marinette. Her writing has appeared in such places as Creative Nonfiction, Sheepshead Review and The Rake.

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