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Exclusive: Facing budget shortfalls, UW System president privately suggested chancellors ‘shift away’ from liberal arts programs at low-income campuses

In an email to chancellors of UW campuses, UW System President Jay Rothman privately suggested schools “shift away” from liberal arts programs while making large, one-time budget cuts.

As the University of Wisconsin System faced a dire fiscal situation, system President Jay Rothman suggested chancellors consider “shifting away” from liberal arts programs, particularly at campuses with low-income students.

In emails obtained by The Daily Cardinal, Rothman, a former law firm chairman and CEO with no higher education background before leading the UW System, told campus chancellors UW schools should seek a long-term path “to return to financial stability.”

“Consider shifting away from liberal arts programs to programs that are more career specific, particularly if the institution serves a large number of low-income students,” Rothman wrote in a list of recommendations sent Sept. 1.

“Make the ‘painful’ cuts and adjustments at one time and then move on,” he said in another takeaway.

Rothman’s comments come as state Republican lawmakers continue to escalate threats against the UW System by withholding pay raises and inflicting millions of dollars in budget cuts, the latter of which has already resulted in more than 300 layoffs and sweeping furloughs across multiple campuses. 

Republicans, who for years have questioned the value of liberal arts programs, want to see the UW System shift funds toward “workforce development” programs like nursing and STEM programs, among other demands. 

However, students and professors who spoke to the Cardinal rebuked Rothman’s statements and worried cutting liberal arts programs would undermine core values of Wisconsin’s public university system.

“It represents a fundamental remaking of the very purposes of education. The Wisconsin Idea, the pursuit of truth, everything that higher ed is really supposed to be about,” said Dr. Neil Kraus, a UW-River Falls political science professor. 

Suggestion to cut liberal arts part of broader budgetary recommendations 

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Rothman’s statement came in response to a Chronicle of Higher Education report he forwarded to all UW System chancellors via email. The report, Rothman said, detailed the background of an institution — Henderson State University — that “faced existential financial challenges” and its strategy to address the situation.

“While I am by no means suggesting that any of our universities face such a severe crisis, there are some observations and other takeaways in the report that resonated with me,” Rothman said in the email.

In his takeaways, Rothman suggested slimming what he said were “too many” program offerings to address financial challenges.

“There may be cases where an institution offers a program that loses money because it is important to the mission,” Rothman said, “but incurring the ‘loss’ should be an intentional decision.”

Rothman suggested low-income campuses in particular should consider cutting liberal arts programs. 

According to UW System statistics, UW-Madison served the lowest number of low-income students (15.3%) in 2022, classified by the UW System as any student receiving a Pell Grant. UW-Parkside, which announced layoffs and furloughs in August, is the highest, with 39.6% of students listed as low-income.

Some campuses are eyeing cuts to liberal arts

UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch said Rothman has “consistently” stated he valued liberal arts education and shared the report having acknowledged some of its lessons “would not be applicable to the Universities of Wisconsin.”

“He did not suggest that chancellors move away from liberal arts programs,” Pitsch said. “However, as evidenced by the $32 million workforce proposal, the universities are seeking to expand capacity in high-growth STEM, health care, and business disciplines to meet workforce needs.”

Rothman’s emails tell a different story.

Although Rothman said in emails some recommendations “will have no applicability to our situation or imply actions that we may not be prepared to take,” he added they were “nonetheless instructive.”

“I encourage you to take a look regardless of your institution’s current financial situation,” Rothman added. “I believe there are some lessons in the report that are relevant and of value to all of us.”

And in the months following his email, some UW campuses are targeting liberal arts programs for cuts or enrollment freezes.

At UW-Green Bay, majors in economics, environmental policy, and theater and dance — all programs within social sciences or the humanities — are on the chopping block, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette. 

Although UW-Oshkosh’s “realignment” plan pledges the school won’t cut academic programs, the university in April paused new enrollments in the school’s theater major, citing low enrollment statistics, according to student newspaper The Advance-Titan.

Faculty, students ‘not surprised’ at Rothman’s statements

Kraus and UW-Oshkosh English professor Douglas Haynes told the Cardinal they weren’t surprised by Rothman’s private statements. 

They were, however, disappointed at Rothman’s attitude toward higher education, something Haynes said was “disturbing to see spelled out in such clear terms.”

“It's disappointing to me that the leader of a university system committed to liberal education would have such a narrow vision of what education provides to people,” Haynes said.

Students and faculty criticized Rothman for having no professional experience in higher education when he was announced as UW System president in 2022. Rothman was chairman and CEO of Foley and Lardner, a nationwide law firm with offices in Madison and Milwaukee, for over 10 years.

“I would expect the president of the system to have a deep background and experience in the workings of higher education institutions," Haynes said.

Ben Leasum, a radio, television and film major with a minor in writing at UW-Oshkosh, said “it’s a damn shame” humanities majors face potential cuts at campuses like UW-Green Bay, where leaders floated eliminating a handful of liberal arts majors in November. 

He enjoys the practical education he gets from hands-on education — working with cameras and audio recording equipment, producing pieces and receiving direct feedback from faculty. 

Leasum said he wouldn’t have even considered UW-Oshkosh if the school didn’t have his major. 

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he added.

Haynes and Kraus said Rothman’s statements create a vision of higher education that would limit liberal arts to students whose families could financially support them throughout their education and early career. 

Rothman’s statement illustrates the attitude “toward limiting opportunities for low-income students and first-generation college students alike,” particularly at comprehensive universities, Haynes said.

For his part, Leasum chose UW-Oshkosh because it's where most of his family members went and is close to his hometown, Green Bay.

“It’s like a family college at this point,” he joked. “It’s a familiar place.”

Are STEM fields tied to workforce development?

Rothman’s recommendations come as university officials are under pressure from state Republican lawmakers to shift toward “workforce development” programs like nursing and engineering.

Republicans sliced $32 million from the UW System’s two-year budget in June in an effort to cut diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming at UW System campuses.

Although it’s unlikely the UW System will recoup the funds without a deal on DEI, university leaders will have a chance to present a $32 million workforce development proposal to lawmakers on the state’s budget-writing committee. The proposal invests in STEM, health care and finance programs, among others.

But students and professors say there’s no clear line between liberal arts and programs oriented toward hard science careers. 

In fact, the two often go hand-in-hand, said Ben Dimenstein, a UW-Madison student studying landscape and urban studies degree as well as cartography and geographic information systems.

Liberal arts programs, Dimenstein said, help students study multiple fields and “figure out what you’re really trying to get into, especially in your professional career.” 

“That’s a really big advantage of the College [of Letters and Sciences],” he added. “It sounds like [Rothman] hasn’t done his full research into what entails a liberal arts major.”

Kraus also criticized prioritizing STEM education as imperative and questioned leaders’ claims that STEM careers drive workforce development. 

STEM jobs are high-paying, Kraus said, but he felt channeling students into technical jobs, rather than being “citizens in a democracy,” isn’t realistic.

Kraus pointed out that STEM jobs comprise around 6.3% of all jobs in the labor market, citing a 2022 Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report. “There are lots of jobs for liberal arts majors, as far as I can tell after looking at 30-40 years of market data.” 

During a meeting with students on Nov. 28, UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin said humanities programs are in a “culturally challenging moment” punctuated by declining enrollment that impacts their “scale, scope and forms of investment.” 

She said many students feel pressure “driven by job dynamics” in selecting a field of study. 

“We should be trying to partly resist that pressure,” Mnookin said, adding the university has a “responsibility” to tell students and the “outside world” that “majors aren’t destinies.”

“I am a strong believer that at the undergraduate level, finding something that you care about enough, that you're going to want to go deep, to take it seriously, matters much much more than the pure practicality of the next work opportunity,” Mnookin said.

UW should explore more equitable budget decisions, two professors say

To Kraus and Haynes, austerity measures enacted by Republicans — which they see as largely unchallenged by UW System leaders — are having a deleterious effect on the UW System. 

Kraus said it’s frustrating to watch the UW System, in his view, remain “implicitly committed to receiving less public money,” even under a significant $7 billion budget surplus.

“They'll say, ‘We're not going to get any more public money,’” Kraus said. “I've heard this repeatedly. Those are our leaders telling us that.”

UW-River Falls has yet to announce deficit reduction measures. However, according to Kraus, external consulting firm Deloitte will provide the methodology for layoffs, not internal UW System employees.

Meanwhile, UW-Madison is an outlier for budget cuts — it’s one of two UW System campuses not currently facing a deficit. Mnookin announced in October the campus planned to absorb $7M in budget cuts without furloughs or layoffs.

To “prop up” UW-Madison, Kraus said, is “very clearly a policy of the UW System, certainly the Republican Party [too].”

“When the public sees the comprehensives under fire and [UW] Madison being elevated by the [UW] System, they're gonna make rational decisions,” Kraus said. “[Students will say,] ‘Maybe I want to rethink going to [UW] Stevens Point, maybe I should go to UW-Madison.”

“We need to be honest about serious inequalities and the messages that this state is sending,” said Haynes. 

As for how the UW System should address its budget woes, Kraus said departmental merges may help alleviate some financial stress from programs.

But he also said the UW System is willing to spend exorbitant amounts — on software, consultants and more — that goes largely unaccounted for. 

“That doesn't seem to be even how they're thinking about these issues. They're thinking about the theater major and the art major,” he said. “Why don't we look at everything that the UW System is spending money on?”

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.


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