Public universities across the state must learn to adapt to the new business model for higher education or their very survival could be at stake was the message delivered by Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Greg Summers at the annual State of Academic Affairs Address.
Summers delivered the address on March 1st in the Dreyfus University Center Theater where he discussed the challenges facing the university and what he sees as options to face them.
“The confluence of events that now confront public universities, like UWSP, render us one of the most vulnerable institutions in higher education,” Summers said.
Summers specifically pointed to the changes evident in our society from when the UW System expanded rapidly from 1950 to 1970, which is a drastically different environment than what the university exists in today.
Specifically, the economy was booming after World War II and there was ample money available, which combined with an extreme increase in demand for higher education, which fueled the growth of the UW System.
Summers cautioned that it would be foolish to think that these conditions are going to return.
“We still operate, essentially, by the same model that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but unfortunately everything that supported the emergence of this model at that time has been undermined, almost completely,” Summers said.
Because the university is receiving record lows in the percentage of funding from the state, tuition has needed to increase to make up the difference. Summers is worried that at some point students will just stop coming.
“A lot of very smart people are now commonly warning Americans of a higher education bubble, as tuition bombs they sometimes refer to,” Summer said. “Student loan debt now exceeds the amount of debt Americans have on their credit cards.
“At some point, possibly much sooner than we realize, they are just going to stop paying tuition. Either they will not come to college at all or they are going to seek cheaper alternatives.”
All of this shouldn’t make people depressed about the future of the university according to Summers.
“This shouldn’t make us pessimistic. Shouldn’t make us willing to accept our eventual decline as if it was fated somehow. It should serve as a call to action. It should instill a resolve within us to fight back,” Summers said.
Summers pointed to three things that he thinks are most crucial to the survival of the university. Improving the salaries of academic staff, implementing the strategic plan that the university developed last year, and improving the academic success of students at UWSP.
“It doesn’t matter what we do with our academic programs. It doesn’t matter what decisions we make with our curriculum. If we continue to allow our salaries to lag behind the rest of our colleagues, we are going to undermine ourselves from within,” Summers said.
Currently over three-quarters of the faculty are paid less than the average at other Midwestern universities, and over 90 percent are paid less than average when looking nationally.
Summers estimates that it would take about $1.3 million to get staff salaries back to average. Chancellor Bernie Patterson recently announced that the university has set aside $200,000 over the next two years from the budget to address this issue.
One way to address the rising cost of tuition was to focus on the graduation rate and getting students through in four years.
“If we get our students out of this university in four years, instead of five, and we save them $15,000 to $17,000 that they would have to spend otherwise. If we get them out into the working world and they an earn a salary a year ahead of time, that only helps us as an institution,” Summers said.