Letter from the Dean

Where do we find ourselves?

How do we respond?

 
As we follow the constant drone of budget reduction realities in the UW System, new demands upon our time, more students with fewer resources, tuition freezes, and with a general feeling that public education is under increasing attack ... how do we respond? There are those who yearn for the “academy of old” where we planned our courses and schedules around instructor time, offered only traditional lecture-based courses in the liberal arts and sciences, and graded and assessed the outcomes of our graduates in something of a vacuum with little communications among disciplines.
 
Yet there are others who feel the entire enterprise is flawed and non-responsive to present “needs of our economy” and want to see all courses offered online or at night, full competency credits for career experience, and a withdrawal from the time-honored traditions of academic freedom, acquisition of tenure, all students living on or near campus, etc. In reality, we find ourselves at a tipping point in the history of the public academy. Our response to “what we should be” must be strategic, decisive and organic, or we will find ourselves being “out-sourced” to corporate or private interest education. It is important that we remind ourselves of our mission, and just how an education centered on career-building (not just job-ready skillsets) is increasingly important as we try to balance access to higher education (equity) with excellence and return-on-investment in what we offer (value).
 
I, for one, am a product of the access our country affords through public education, and did not have the choice of attending an elite private institution. Costs at many private colleges are off-the-charts, and access was historically reserved for those who already had economic advantages going in. Private colleges and universities are a wonderful asset to our country, but access has not always been equitable, particularly to first-generation families.
 
We face a variety of challenges to our existing academic foundations; online colleges, technical education posed as career education, professional schools requiring less and less knowledge of basic literature, history, moral and ethical philosophy, attacks on our public teachers as underworked and overpaid. We can spend hours fighting perceptions, but if we only fight perceptions, we cannot adapt. We must also educate the public. I am proud of being the dean of a college which forms the fundamental core of what is known as a liberal arts and sciences education. Our faculty still require full academic freedom, an opportunity to attain tenure, and gain access to professional development in their fields in the form of sabbaticals. And we need some form of shared governance that guarantees faculty and staff expertise still have a role in determining curricula, policies and budget allocations. The italicized items have become lightning-rods for a public that seems increasing disenchanted and increasingly susceptible to misrepresentations.
 
We know such terms as the cement upon which a strong foundation of faculty depend, allowing them to stay current in their fields and attain a level of independence of thought that should be considered the raison d’etre of higher education. But with the 18-22 year-old student cohort declining, increasing family responsibilities of nontraditional students, distance challenges and limited financial resources, students (and parents) now question our modes, content and schedule of educational delivery. Is there a place for online education? Of course! Can we work out class schedules that appeal to more of our nontraditional and working-student base? Of course! Are we able to empower our contingent (adjunct) faculty to have a sense of belonging and some say in university affairs? Of course! Can we alter public perceptions to clarify that higher education is really preparation for lifelong learning, while addressing the real needs of working adults, returning veterans, the disabled, the financially challenged? Of course!
 
If we do not address a rapidly diversifying student demography, use and master new pedagogic technologies, and require more accountability of ourselves, it will mean nothing to say we are still the “best deal in town.” And we are! With tuition of $7,675 per year, world-class faculty and staff, and state-of-the-art facilities, how can it be so quickly accepted that we are too expensive? 
 
As a first-generation college student and first-generation high school student (my parents finished but sixth grade), I attest to the incredible value of what we offer, and challenge those who belittle it to show me how building career and life-long leadership skills, and welcoming a diversity of viewpoints, is not important. At this institution, we train our students to become leaders with career skills — beyond having a trade and a certificate.
 
Public higher education in the U.S. is still the envy of the world. Our own citizens need to be convinced it is so, or we will all pay the price as a democracy.  I challenge us all — administration, faculty, students, staff, our stakeholders, public employees, entrepreneurs, bankers, business owners and CEOs — to take on the challenge of communicating these truths to the public. This annual report is an opportunity for our academic community to communicate to you our value to Wisconsin, as we move into what might be considered “uncharted waters.” I am confident we can step up to these challenges and remain the jewel in this UW crown.
 
Sincerely,
 
Dean, College of Letters and Science
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

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