|Photo by Miles Maguire|
University officials dispute warnings that educational quality will decline as academic funding is cut.
By Miles Maguire
Facing a budget “crisis,” the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is cutting about $8 million in costs, a move that some classroom instructors say will have far-reaching effects on the educational environment and undermine recent successes in attracting and retaining students.
Provost John Koker, the school’s chief academic officer, has used the word “crisis” to describe a budget situation in which the university has been spending about $9.5 million a year more than it has been taking in. While faculty and staff acknowledge that the budget problems are real, many of them are doubtful--and some are outright critical--of the proposed changes.
“This is a fundamental shift in the way that our university has viewed itself and the relationship between teaching and research and the relationship between faculty and students,” said Jim Feldman, the director of the school’s Environmental Studies Program and president of a newly formed union, United Faculty and Staff of Oshkosh.
“The student experience is what is at risk,” he added. “We will simply not be able to do as good a job as we did before. That will have a dramatic impact.”
The university has embarked on a three-year cost reduction and revenue enhancement program, with the biggest cuts coming in the next academic year and with additional cuts coming in the following 12 months. Oshkosh hopes that a rebound in enrollment and a change in the way it charges for certain classes will bring in $1.5 million to close the budget gap.
Starting in fall 2019 budget cuts will mean increased teaching for many faculty members, especially in the school’s largest division, the College of Letters and Science. Faculty members, who are expected to conduct research as well as teach, will have less time to engage in studies and experiments. Financial support to attend academic conferences has already been cut.
The situation is worse for untenured instructional staff, some of whom will be losing their jobs after many years of service. “We have great compassion for the people who are experiencing these changes. They are very difficult,” said Chancellor Andrew Leavitt. “But at the same time [we] have the responsibility for making sure we continue to have a strong institution moving forward.”
Because of the smaller instructional staff, Oshkosh students can expect to see larger classes, reduced availability of courses and a loss of both personalized attention and the opportunity to work with professors in laboratories and other research settings. Independent study courses, which faculty teach without compensation to help individual students meet graduation requirements, may disappear altogether.
University officials acknowledge that major changes are underway and that morale has taken a hit. But they argue that they are working to preserve critical elements of the school’s program for first-year students and that faculty research was ripe for review because of varying productivity levels.
At UW Oshkosh, research support for faculty has been more extensive than it is at other teaching-oriented schools in the UW System. Faculty members have been able to apply for reduced teaching assignments to spend more time on research.
“The rigor of that curriculum modification plan has not been what it was intended to be originally,” Koker said. “You have people who are barely skating by and people who are very highly productive.” He envisions a time when more faculty members will routinely teach four courses a semester while others teach three based on their productivity as researchers.
Not all of the details have been sorted out, and campus employees are hoping that a change in administration in Madison could mean a restoration of some state funds. These revenues have been cut by hundreds of millions of dollars across the UW System over the last few years. Other factors in the Oshkosh budget situation are a tuition freeze and a steep drop in enrollment over the last five years.
The university is moving toward “more of a private school model,” Koker said, with strategic and operating decisions driven by how well it can manage fluctuations in enrollment.
Within five to 10 years he believes this shift will bring significant benefits, giving the campus greater flexibility in developing new programs for students and providing incentives to attract and retain staff.
But in the short run the price will be paid by instructors, including some with 20 years or more of experience at the school who will not be hired back in the fall. Koker said there are no alternatives given the size of the budget shortfall and the fact that so much of the university’s spending is on personnel.
In the private sector, reduced job security is offset by higher compensation. But at UW Oshkosh, faculty members are paid at rates that are from 16 to 19 percent behind their peers at similar schools outside of the state, according to UW System data.
Perhaps not surprisingly UW Oshkosh has already seen a double-digit rate of faculty turnover, with 32 out of 309 having left in fiscal 2018, according to the UW System. Across the system as a whole, the turnover rate was 3 percentage points lower. In a worrisome sign for future recruitment, the turnover rate was higher for newer faculty at Oshkosh rather than for more established instructors.
Officials concede that in hindsight the budget situation could have been managed better. The school has burned through $51 million in reserves while its enrollment has been trending down over the past four years.
Some question whether the university can maintain its positive momentum in student recruitment and achievement as classroom resources are curtailed. Two of the biggest bright spots for the school have been improvements in the four-year graduation rate and in the retention of first-year students.
But faculty members say these gains are at risk, particularly with the loss of the untenured instructors who typically teach lower level courses. Some campus employees warn of a downward spiral as reduced educational quality leads to lower enrollments and then to further budget cuts.
Chancellor Andrew Leavitt rejects this idea and argues that Oshkosh will continue to provide a high quality education. “This is still a great place to come,” he said.
A complicating factor given the university’s growing reliance on tuition is the joining of the main Oshkosh campus with two-year schools in Menasha and Fond du Lac. Throughout the UW System, the two-year schools have seen major drops in enrollment, although Koker said UW Fox Valley has actually added new students due to “aggressive” international recruitment.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, whose district takes in the Oshkosh campus and much of the city, has blasted the budget reductions. “Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans continue to dismantle UW System through self-inflicted cuts,” he said in a statement. “Loss of faculty at UW Oshkosh will come at the expense of student learning and future opportunity.”
But Sen. Dan Feyen, a Republican, disagrees about the source of the school’s problems. “In the last six years, the university has seen an overall drop in enrollment of 15 percent, which equates to a $10 million loss in revenue,” he said. UW Fond du Lac “saw a decrease in enrollment of 11.4 percent this year alone,” he added.
“As these schools are serving fewer students, it is simply inevitable they will also see declining revenue from tuition, and budgets will have to be adjusted accordingly,” Feyen said. He also dismissed the idea that the UW System does not get enough state support.
“The state contributes $2.1 billion” in general purpose revenue, Feyen said. “The UW system has more money in their all-funds budget currently than ever before.”
One reason enrollment has taken such a hit, officials believe, is the strong economy, which provides an attractive alternative for students graduating from local high schools. Koker said the percentage of graduating seniors in Oshkosh going on to higher education has been cut almost in half, to about 40 percent, over the last few years.
When the economy starts to decline, which many business leaders think could happen as soon as next year, Oshkosh will likely see a “huge surge” in interest from prospective students, Koker said.
But many of these students will be older adults who may seek nontraditional classes, including online instruction. “This is an opportunity for us,” Koker. “This is the time where we seriously need to look at alternative types of programs in addition to our traditional higher education experience.”