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UW-Superior cuts programs to fix shortfall

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news Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

The University of Wisconsin-Superior faces a $4.5 million shortfall after years of declining enrollment and state budget cuts, and a tuition freeze put into effect this year.

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So far, about $1.3 million in reductions have been identified through the suspension of several academic programs, the potential layoff of 28 grounds and custodial employees and the outsourcing of the bookstore to a private company.

After dealing with at least 10 years of reduced state funding and four years of declining enrollment, learning about the tuition freeze was a surprise, Chancellor Renee Wachter said, and it meant the school needed to act.

“I thought there would be an increase,” she said, noting the freeze and deep cuts from the state put UWS in a difficult position. “There really does need to be an agreement (with the state) about this is where and how we are going to fund you, and count on that. The volatility is devastating to campuses.”

The university spent the year examining all areas of campus to see where it should cut back and where it could grow.

About half of the 25 graduate program offerings are suspended, along with three undergraduate programs: two for minors and one for a bachelor’s degree. That means no new students after May 27 can enroll in those programs. There are 15 programs, and six students have enrolled for next year among all of them. Those programs were targeted for their low enrollments. At the high end, 63 students graduated in 10 years from the graduate visual arts studio program. At the low end, for example, no students have graduated from the library science graduate program in a decade.

Faculty from those areas would be moved to teach in other parts of the university, because of retirements and vacancies. As for the grounds and custodial employees, their work would go outside of UWS.

The university received a nearly $3 million reduction in funding during the 2011-13 biennium and one for $1.3 million before that, but there were 5.5 percent tuition increases during those years. Wachter said the university’s heavy dependence on tuition, combined with decreasing enrollment, has compounded its problem, and is similar to what the University of Minnesota Duluth is facing. Enrollment at UWS has shrunk from about 2,870 in the 2004-05 school year to 2,660 this year, which is about a 7 percent drop.     

Immediate concerns for the school, which has a $65 million operating budget, include cutting or finding revenue to make up this biennium’s roughly $2 million state budget reduction. The $1.3 million in savings through suspended programs and potential layoffs is part of those cuts.  

The campus also needs to either cut or generate revenue to make up $2.5 million in unfunded and underfunded costs over the next five years, including those from its Wessman Arena and athletic travel deficits, and adjunct instructor and shared technology costs. The adjunct cost, for example, is $400,000 this year, and the athletic travel cost is $200,000, which will be solved by the university’s shift to the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference.

The suspension of academic programs is an opportunity, Wachter said, to better meet the needs of students.

“When you have a program that doesn’t have strong enrollments, you probably want to rethink delivery or rethink content,” she said. “We’re trying to create new opportunities for students to access us.”

The graduate theater program — which has been suspended — is small, said theater professor Cathy Fank, a member of the communicating arts department.

In the past decade, there have been three graduates.

“At the beginning of the week I thought the theater (undergraduate) major was suspended,” she said. “The news of the master’s is not so harsh for me to hear.”

But two other communicating arts department programs that were suspended have larger numbers, she said, “and it’s a big hit for them, partly because they want an opportunity to make it work.”

Suspended programs will, in essence, be in limbo once the remaining students graduate. A suspension lasts 10 years until the program officially closes, and in that time the school will decide whether to reinvest in it or shut it down.

About 50 academic programs also are “under review” for their low enrollment, which means no immediate impact. They will be studied for potential updates to curriculum and plans to increase demand.

Faculty members aren’t necessarily surprised by the news, but are hoping it’s not permanent, said Tim Cleary, department chairman of visual arts, which has three suspended graduate programs.

“I have a few concerns about the decision, but I know that times are challenging,” he said. “I think the numbers are lower than might be financially feasible for the university. … Meanwhile, as a department we will miss working with those advanced students.”

He said the decision probably won’t influence undergraduate enrollment in the arts department, because there is talk of strengthening some areas, such as art therapy.

Both Fank and Cleary noted the hard financial times faced by higher education in the region and across the country.

And morale at the small campus — which employs just over 500 people — has taken a hit, Cleary said.

Even so, he said, “there is a grudging, hopeful acceptance, with a lot of compassion for each other.”

RELATED CONTENT: List of programs to be suspended

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