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UW faculty: Be concerned, state funding cuts harmful

A way must be found to tell students, their parents and the public about the effects state funding cuts are having on services, agreed a group of UW-River Falls educators.

About 20 UW-RF faculty members, a handful of students and others met Nov. 9 in a meeting called by academic staff union President Kurt Leichtle and Student Body President Tyler Halverson.

The intent of the meeting was to discuss a new round of university budget cuts announced in October and the future of public education in Wisconsin.

In October the Wisconsin Department of Administration announced the distribution of $174 million in cuts to state agencies' 2011-2013 budgets and ordered that the University of Wisconsin System schools take 38% of that hit.

UW officials complained that the reduction is especially unfair because their funding constitutes only 7% of the state budget.

The proposed reduction means UW-RF must trim $1.3 million in expenditures during the fiscal year that began July 1 and another $556,132 in fiscal year 2012-13.

That's on top of the $2.8 million base reduction UW-RF took in the state budget adopted this past summer.

"We were an easy cut in their minds," suggested Leichtle.

He said state administrators may see the campuses as a good target for cuts because they have money in reserves. But, said Leichtle, much of that money is self-insurance kept for repairs, such as those that might be needed after a severe storm.

Also after earlier cuts, the universities raised tuition to help cover the loss in state funding.

Those tuition increases are pushing the state universities in a dangerous direction, one that makes it more and more difficult for young people to earn a college degree, said Leichtle.

He referred to a Wisconsin Public Radio report that indicated over 23,000 of those who applied for admission to a UW campus couldn't afford to pay for any of their education.

"We are going to see an erosion of those who can come to the university," he said, adding that, "State universities in the United States are becoming public universities."

While decades ago tuition was low enough that students with limited means could find a way to pay for college, eroding state funding is making that more and more difficult, said Leichtle.

At UW-RF, student tuition covers 67% of the university's budget, he said. Leichtle referred to a graph showing that in 2001 government appropriations paid for a larger percentage of public university funding than did tuition, but by 2004 that burden had shifted and today student revenues pay a far greater share of the costs.

Leichtle suggested that during this recession, rather than raising tuition, Wisconsin should do as other universities have done in the past and lower or even drop tuition to help more people afford college.

"We're saying, 'We don't want you,' by cutting and cutting and cutting (state support of education)," said Leichtle.

"This is a continuous trend. This has been going on for 20 years," said Mike Middleton of the Plant and Earth Science Department,

"From the Legislature's point of view, it's been successful," he added, saying that every time lawmakers demand a cut, the universities make it.

Middleton suggested the university show some leadership and say it can't make these reductions.

"We continue to figure out a way to do it, and nobody notices," agreed Glenn Spiczak, professor of physics.

"We almost do the Minnesota-nice thing over here in Wisconsin," said Terry Ferriss of the Plant and Earth Science Department.

She said the faculty and staff take the brunt of the cuts and try to protect students by maintaining services.

"I think we have to stop doing that," said Ferriss. She said faculty should show students what the cuts mean in the way of reduction in support staff and extra duties for faculty.

Current students don't realize that 10 years ago tuition was much lower, classes were smaller, and students graduated with less debt, said Ben Plunkett, a former UW-RF pupil.

Besides, he said, over half of UW-RF students are from Minnesota and don't feel an obligation to influence legislation or even be voters.

If students notice there's been increase in tuition, they think it's due to inflation, said Tyler Halverson, UW-RF Student Body president. He said students need to realize that they don't have to accept state-funding cuts and there is something they can do about tuition increases.

If funding for education is increased, tuition goes down, and that's better for staff, students and the state, said Leichtle.

Leichtle, who chairs the History and Philosophy Department, said the department has lost two tenured faculty positions. But because those positions are filled, at least temporarily, by a visiting professor and an instructor on a short-term contract, the loss isn't readily apparent to students.

But, said Leichtle, by relying too heavily on adjunct staff, departments lose continuity and the ability to develop upper level courses.

Middleton suggested making and distributing a list of how students and the university are affected by budget cuts. Leichtle said he would send out a memo to staff asking for items for that list.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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