According to UW Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt, Governor Scott Walker’s tuition freeze is putting pressure on UWO and small departments like religious studies.
“It’s putting tremendous stress on us as an institution. In this day and age, if you have a department where someone retires or someone leaves, there’s a question that has to be asked: should we replace that someone, should we move that position to another department or should we cut it all together because we are trying to bring down our level of expenses?” Leavitt said.
Leavitt said he doesn’t see the situation improving anytime soon.
“Students have been paying less for tuition because we’ve had a five-year tuition freeze,” Leavitt said, “Governor Walker has said no tuition increases, he’s running for a third term now and there’s absolutely no reason he would change that policy, so it’s possible for us to have 12 consecutive years of no raise in tuition,” Corley said.
Kathleen Corley, religious studies professor, said the department is down to two tenured faculty members.
“We are down to two faculty members in the department, Michael Baltutis and I are both tenured, and Andrea Jakobs, who is a lecturer from the history department.”
Religious studies professor Michael Baltutis said the department has a combined number of less than 20 majors and minors.
“Right now, we have something like eight majors, and something like ten minors,” Baltutis said.
Leavitt said the University might be millions of dollars underbudgeted on the tuition target this year.
“This year, we might be six-seven million dollars under the tuition target, which translates to being down about 1,100 students,” Leavitt said. “We were in surplus with the tuition in 2011 when the enrollments were so high, but then we fell below it. As a result, there’s a lot of stress being put on all of our programs, academic and non-academic.”
Baltutis said some of the issues happening at UWO are national trends.
“We pushed [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] courses in high schools and colleges, so the general area of humanities is going to take a hit and something like religious studies and foreign languages are really going to take a hit,” Baltutis said. “Some of the issues that are happening here, like fewer faculty and fewer students, has nothing to do with anything that is happening on this campus, more so national trends.”
Corley said that it is hard to offer classes when there aren’t enough students to fill those classes.
“We don’t have enough students that get into the entry-level courses. I no longer offer Jesus and the Gospels or Gnosticism, or a lot of those higher-level classes, because they are hard to fill,” Corley said.
Corley said, in her opinion, the curriculum change led to declining numbers in the department as well.
“We changed the shape of our curriculum to make it more like a secular state university religious studies program,” Corley said. “I was in opposition to it because I said it didn’t fit our constituency – most of our constituents are conservative Catholics, and Lutherans, and Christians. By getting rid of a bible position and getting rid of these other positions, we would ultimately lose students, and not only did we lose those students, but we lost faculty who were opposed to the change as well.”
Baltutis said one issue that led to declining numbers in the religious studies department was not replacing retired faculty.
“The first faculty member who left was sort of the gatekeeper. He taught multiple sections of the intro courses, so he saw a lot of students, and I think that was another opportunity that we really let go by the wayside when we didn’t fill his position.” Baltutis said.
Baltutis said that having a tight budget makes it difficult when a professor needs to take time from teaching.
“I will be writing a book, so I will be gone this upcoming semester. So far we do not have a replacement for my position yet,” Baltutis said. “I’ve got three courses planned for the fall, and I planned those courses so that we can fairly easily get someone to cover, so they aren’t courses that are from three different areas.
Leavitt said UWO isn’t the only institution under stress.
“You can only cut so much; 90 percent of our budget is people,” Leavitt said. “The only place you can cut is people. If the student demand isn’t there, you’re going to have casualties as a result. If you have low enrollment majors, in time, those will be under stress. If you look at what’s happening at Superior and Stevens Point, Superior has suspended or eliminated over 30 programs. Stevens Point is about to announce [cuts to] 20 programs due to low enrollment.”
According to Leavitt, many departments’ resources are going down, not just religious studies.
“We have a process by which we evaluate these positions,” Leavitt said. “So, we say, do we have a student demand? Part of the problem is, when you start to move resources away from a department whether its retraction or retirement, that often times will affect demand. Students may say, I don’t want to go into religious studies because it looks like their resources are going down. In the truth of the matter, everyone’s resources are going down.”
Leavitt said that layoffs could possibly happen for UWO.
“Layoffs could be down the road if we start to run out of fund balances, and we can’t have the expenditures meet the revenue,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt also said, chances are, students will see instructional academic staff go first.
“When I started in 2014, we were at 1440 full-time employees, and now we’re at 1290 and I’ve got to cut about 150-200 full-time employees just to bring the budget into balance,” Leavitt said. “Chances are, your faculty aren’t going to be the ones to go, it will be your instructional academic staff. That great adjunct or great professor that you love so much, that’s who you might see go because of declining numbers of students in that area.”
When it comes time to making cuts, Leavitt said the University has loyalty to seniority.
“We always want to give preference to those who have been here for a long time. We have a responsibility and a loyalty to them. If you have just come on board, that tends to be the ones that are a little more volatile,” Leavitt said. “It’s a difficult situation, because these are people who are terrific teachers and are loyal to us. At the end of the year, we may have to let them go because we simply don’t have the classes for them to teach the following year. We make these cuts every year, and we have for the last three years since I’ve been here.”
According to Leavitt, the University Resource Allocation Committee the people in charge of making decisions to enhance, keep the same, reduce or eliminate programs.
“Right now, the URAC is going through every academic and non-academic unit on campus and their asking a couple of important questions,” Leavitt said. “There’s the quantitative side, which is easy: how many faculty, how many staff, how many students, how many students do you graduate a year? Then there’s the qualitative side, is this a program of quality, is the program providing an important part of the work-force?”
Each department will have the opportunity to put their best foot forward, Leavitt said.
“They will be able to write their own narratives and they’ll have the ability to review some of their own data,” Leavitt said.
Baltutis is looking to the brighter side and said he is doing many things to preserve the religious studies department.
“As a coordinator, one of the things that I did was develop a list of courses from other departments- history, English, sociology- that would count towards the religious studies major and minor,” Baltutis said. “It was a great exercise to interact with different departments but also to help our students in our program to say, yep, we are interdisciplinary. Rethinking how we can operate, partly to preserve the program, and say that we teach core courses.”
Baltutis said he has even altered his courses so that he can gain more students.
“Making an effort and a commitment to edit or alter my courses so that they fit what the global scholar program requires, which is looking at inter-connections and inequality across world borders and boundaries, and hopefully by doing that, students will take one of my courses that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Baltutis said.
Leavitt also expressed the importance of the religious studies department.
“Religious studies is an important subject, one that lends itself to all kinds of interdisciplinary studies if you’re interested in world cultures, international relations, psychology, sociology, to me, it seems as though it would be a fantastic subject to supplement any of these studies,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt said that higher education is now being seen as a private benefit than a public good.
“The idea of higher education being a public good, is falling by the wayside, it’s now considered to be more of a private benefit,” Leavitt said. “What’s going to happen is, the services you receive, and the variety that you have are going to compromised. We just can’t do it anymore.”
According to Leavitt, the state allocation to the system has been cut by 30 percent in three years.
“When I first started here, the state allocation to the system was about $1.1 billion per year for all the institutions, now it’s about $700 million and I’ve only been here three years, so it’s a 30 percent cut. That’s huge,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt said Walker has made it hard for the institution to move forward.
“Scott Walker took out $250 million in the last bi-annual and then froze tuition so that was a real serious cut to us,” Leavitt said.
According to Leavitt, for students, 35 percent of education expenses is paid for by the state.
“About 60-65 percent of your educational expense is borne by you, or your family and about 35 percent is the state,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt said higher education is the only industry that includes the cost of living expenses in the sticker price of the product.
“We’re the only industry that I can think of where the cost of living expenses is included in the sticker price of the product,” Leavitt said. “If you go onto one of the Bergstrom lots, to buy a car, and on the sticker price it says car is $28,000 and then it says cell phone, health insurance, food, rent, all those things are included, so you look and you say, that’s an outrageous sticker price; I can’t believe how much that car costs. That’s because of everything that is in there, that has nothing to do with higher education, like living.”
Leavitt said he thinks the tuition freeze will affect higher education.
“I think it is seriously going to compromise what is a world-class university system,” Leavitt said. “Try to imagine anything else you buy, where that price has been frozen for five years, you can’t. On two-year campuses, it’s been frozen for eight years, and we wonder why they can’t survive. Students like it because they don’t have to pay as much tuition. By not having any tuition increase, we can’t even begin to stay current.”