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UWS students express frustration over program suspensions

From left: University of Wisconsin-Superior students Elle McMahon, who studies journalism, and Kirsten Nevin and Emily Koch, who study art therapy, hold signs expressing their feelings during a forum Friday about program suspensions. The signs read: "We want honesty," "Stand with UWS" and "You've robbed us." Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, a UWS alumnus, listens while waiting his turn to speak at the forum held at UWS to respond to program suspensions announced by school officials on Tuesday. Paine later criticized university officials for how they handled the decision to suspend the programs. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Janet Branley of Superior, a senior at UWS who also has a daughter there in the art therapy master's program, turns to the audience at the forum and raises her sign after expressing her frustration with the recent decision to suspend university programs to Brenda Harms (left), UWS vice chancellor of enrollment management. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
UWS Chancellor Renee Wachter answers questions from students about the recently announced program suspensions during a forum held at Yellowjacket Union on campus Friday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Days after the University of Wisconsin-Superior announced it was suspending more than two dozen academic programs, students packed a room at the Yellowjacket Union on Friday to question administration about the decision.

Students who spoke at Friday's forum said the decision lacked transparency and has broken their trust in university administration. UWS Chancellor Renee Wachter, interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs Jackie Weissenburger and interim vice chancellor of enrollment management Brenda Harms were on hand to listen to the students' comments.

Theater major Christopher Linder said the decision to suspend the programs, including theater, doesn't fit with what the mission of the university should be.

"Imagine a hospital that only treats popular illnesses. Imagine a church that constantly changed its policies and doctrines to amass and maintain the largest congregation. ... Is education supposed to be business as usual?" Linder said. "Because as far as I'm concerned, this college experience is more about direction and guidance than it is jumping through hoops for a piece of paper to lock the rest of my life into a career path. Now I've seen this university turn its back on the programs and professors that have offered to me the direction and guidance that will stay with me for the rest of my life."

A total of 5 percent of UWS students are in one of the affected programs; the university said no faculty in the affected programs will be laid off, but some may need to teach courses they haven’t taught in a while or those they haven’t prepared for before, Weissenburger told the News Tribune last week.

Marinel Walfridsson, president of the UWS Student Government Association, said the campus has felt like it's "on hold" this week because of the announcement. He added that the decision affects everyone on campus because it will affect UWS' enrollment and budget.

An online petition opposing the program suspensions had garnered more than 3,600 signatures by Friday night; the Student Government Association also is planning to address the decision at its meeting on Monday.

The programs — find the complete list here — were targeted based on low enrollment and poor completion rates, according to UWS. University officials said earlier this week that UWS wanted to streamline its offerings to reduce dropouts and have more students graduate in a timely fashion.

While suspended, the programs won't enroll any new students, but the remaining students will be able to finish the program. Wachter said Friday that the university will give students a week, beginning Monday, to still declare a major in one of the suspended programs.

In announcing the program suspensions, UWS pointed out that 46 percent of UWS students are first-generation college students who it said are susceptible to "becoming overwhelmed" by many academic choices — a statement that several people, including Superior Mayor Jim Paine, took issue with during Friday's forum.

Paine, an alumnus of UWS, criticized university officials during the forum for their handling of the decision, and said the university never consulted with him nor the community beforehand.

"One of the things that's most frustrating to me — of course I wanted to come here as alumni — but it's important for me to come here as the mayor because this institution affects this community and it is a message that I've been trying to bring to the university for the past several months that I have been in office. You need us in this community and we need you," Paine said.

Forums should have taken place with students, faculty and the community before the decision to suspend programs was made, he said.

"We deserved to be a part of it. I deserved, on behalf of my city, to have a conversation about this with you, Chancellor, either in my office or in yours. Now, that said, it is not too late. We can talk about this more; we can suspend this decision and bring other voices in," he said.

Wachter said UWS administration contacted Paine's office on Friday morning to set up a meeting and they look forward to meeting with him.

In response to a UWS alumnus questioning why he should continue to support the university, Wachter said alumni should be committed to the university because they believe in students and the future.

"That's why I would ask that you remain committed to this place because it's worth it. And I know right now people feel like we don't value them, but that's really not the case," Wachter said.

UWS freshman Megan Alford told the News Tribune before the forum that she decided to attend UWS because she would be able to receive both a bachelor's and master's degree in art therapy. However, the suspension of the art therapy program means she will need to go elsewhere for graduate school. Art therapy is a specialized program that few universities offer in the Midwest, and Alford said she's concerned she'll have to attend graduate school at a private university she won't be able to afford.

"I came up here because it's affordable and all the other schools I looked at, I couldn't get into and it was way too expensive. I didn't want to be in, like, billions of dollars of debt when I get out of college. It's so upsetting that I can't do my master's anymore," Alford said.

UWS student Jordan Koski said his sister is a high school senior who has been accepted to enter UWS next school year and run on UWS' cross-country team, but is now "crushed" that her major has been suspended. His sister is now trying to figure out where else she can attend college instead of UWS.

Harms said admissions staff will be reaching out to incoming students about their options.

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