In response to proposed cuts to 13 liberal arts majors at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a bill has been introduced in the state Legislature to create a Blue Ribbon Commission for the UW System.

Twenty-three cosponsors introduced this Assembly bill at the end of March. Under the bill, a 19-person commission would be created to investigate topics related to the UW System.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, was one of the legislators who introduced the bill. In an email to The Badger Herald, Shankland said the proposed cuts at UW-Stevens Point came as a surprise and are the result of years of budget cuts. The majors implicated in the proposed cut include art, geography, history, political science and sociology, among others.  

“While I understand the need to address this budget deficit, I also believe we should be including students, faculty and staff in the planning process and ensuring their voices are heard in the process,” Shankland said. 

The Blue Ribbon Commission would include UW System faculty, staff, students, legislators and higher education and workforce development experts, and would aim to examine these issues including workforce retention programs and the UW System’s strengths and weaknesses.

Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, is the ranking member of the Committee on Colleges and Universities and one of the bill’s cosponsors. 

Berceau said it seems not many people were involved in the decision-making process and it was like a “bomb dropped.”

“The shocking thing to me was the fact that it doesn’t seem that many people were involved in this,” Berceau said.“I am wondering if Stevens Point was even involved or just told this is the way it’s going to be.”

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The legislation perfectly lays out steps for how to do these things the right way, Berceau said.  

Nicholas Hillman, associate professor and educational policy analyst in the UW School of Education, said a Blue Ribbon Commission creates an opportunity for a public, open discussion with clear intentions.

“I think the spirit and the purpose of this is to have a public and transparent conversation about the goals of the state when it comes to higher education,” Hillman said. “I’ve been here for five years and it’s still very unclear to me what kind of plan the state has in place.”

Hillman said the proposed cuts at UW-Stevens Point could be indicative of UW System’s future.

UW Stevens Point decided which majors to eliminate based on enrollment trends, Hillman said. There are similar enrollment trends across the UW System and other institutions may follow UW-Stevens Points’ lead and justify cutting majors, Hillman said.

Berceau said it sets a precedent for UW System’s future.

“I think this is the first step in what I expect we are going to see from the System,” Berceau said. “They’re going to take a look at every campus and decide what it’s focus is going to be.”

Creating “magnet schools” may not offer students a well-rounded education as what the school offers is more limited, Berceau said.

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Having a wide variety of classes available to open her mind and expand her world changed Berceau’s education. Students lose those opportunities when schools train people in one specific field, Berceau said.  

“I hate to see that lost in terms of coming up with this sort of pipeline notion of education, that we’re going to train people in these narrow specialties to get jobs, because life is bigger than just your job,” Berceau said. “If you narrowly focus students, they don’t get an opportunity to learn a lot about themselves.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission could also help unify the UW System and could create more opportunities for the sharing of resources, professional development and learning across the institutions, Hillman said.

The Wisconsin State Legislature already has a commission for K-12 public education funding.

“A commission could help harmonize the independent activities happening on each campus so that they could work more cohesively together as a system, maximize what the system is,” Hillman said. “Without that, every institution is kind of off doing their own thing and it kind of calls into question … the purpose of the system.”

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Education leaders across the state are interested in Assembly Bill 1068 and want to have the same kind of conversations about the future of higher education in Wisconsin, Shankland said.

Shankland said the commission would work towards providing educational and economic opportunities for the next generation.  

“Students deserve to have the same opportunities their parents and grandparents had. The promise of the American Dream is falling out of reach for too many,” Shankland said. “We need to restore the promise of affordable higher education in every region of our state and that starts with a Blue Ribbon Commission to strategically plan for the future and commit to funding our colleges and universities.”