Spring 2018 course cuts signal difficulties for students, instructors

To offset costs of running a course face to face, George Waller, Curriculum Committee chair, advocates shifting certain courses to point-to-point video conferencing. Room 1838 is one classroom in which point-to-point courses are offered. • photo by Vinnie Oestreich

The recovery of three would-be-canceled classes was a bright spot in the 103-credit alteration to the UW-Fox’s spring 2018 course selections, wherein a number of external obstacles caused the campus Curriculum Committee (CC) a challenge in sustaining a varied liberal arts education.

The course alterations were a combination of section cuts, shifts to point-to-point video-conference courses and online courses, and transfers of course assignments traditionally taught by an adjunct to a tenured professor.

Still, the credit alterations were slightly better than anticipated, according to Bill Bultman, associate dean of academic affairs.

“They’re pretty darn close to on target … less than a percent change, and so we added a couple of courses in to account for that at Fox for spring,” Bultman said, referring to Women’s Voices (GSW 102), Heredity (BIO 141), Creative Writing I (ENG 203) and Psychology of Gender (PSY 208).

Though UW-Fox was able to offer more courses than expected, the CC found simultaneous obstacles in instructor designations, state governance, competition with four-year universities, budgetary concerns and enrollment declines when developing course selections.

Curriculum Committee Humanities and Fine Arts Representative and English Department Associate Chair Bill Gillard said curriculum planning was “a bloodbath,” undergoing heavy planning last fall to reach an intended March 6 deadline to propose curricular changes.

“It’s a lot of discussion, course by course, who’s offering what [and] when, and are there online availability in any of the classes, those kinds of things,” Gillard said. “Sometimes it stretched over several days, maybe over a week we would have three-, four-hour meetings.”

Much of the difficulty in planning a course falls in who can teach the course. Waller said that preference goes to tenured instructors, to whom the university is obligated to provide a full courseload, unlike adjunct instructors, who are hired on a course-by-course basis.

This necessary solution, however, can cause traditionally higher-enrolled courses taught by adjuncts to be canceled in favor of lower-enrolled courses because no tenured professor are qualified to teach it.

“On other campuses, for example, they may have committed to hiring three faculty positions in history, which means you can’t cut those history courses even if they’re really low enrolled, which means your only choice is to cancel higher-enrolled courses taught by [adjuncts]. That’s problematic, but that’s the position we’re in,” Waller said.

Waller said that the balance between faculty and adjunct is pretty managed at Fox. However, it is not immune to this. The GSW 102 course that admitted students on an overload basis after being fully enrolled would have met this fate if overall enrollment had not exceeded expectations.

On the other hand, it is useful to assign tenured instructors low-enrolled courses deemed critical to students’ areas of study. Waller points to UW-Fox’s Organic Chemistry I and II (CHE 343 and 361) courses as an example.

“Organic chemistry typically only has four or five students in it, but if we don’t offer it, what happens? That chemistry major is behind. They’re going to have to pick up organic chemistry at a four-year institution, which is going to add to the number of semesters necessary to obtain their major,” Waller said.

At the same time, Waller said there is no way to offer a lower-enrolled course without finding a trade-off somewhere else, which makes course selection challenging, especially when certain majors at two-year schools like Fox may amount to as low as single digits.

“We have a lot of majors in some areas and very few in others,” Gillard said.

“It’s difficult because in order to run courses like that, I’m going to have to cancel a class that has 30 students in it,” Bultman said. “They’re difficult decisions to run a class to know what a few students need, but they need them really badly, and the cost is you’re losing some of those more general education, higher-enrollment classes.”

The CC’s goal is to strike a balance in the curriculum as much as possible.

“The curriculum committee will, if we can, keep the variety of the curriculum, and so if there’s two sections of this class and one of this class, maybe we’ll look to cut one section here so both classes are still offered,” Gillard said.

Although the question of prioritizing tenured instructors in course allocation may provide a problem in curricular diversity, external factors play a far greater role.

Waller points to a lack of state support as a driving factor for the increasing limitations in course options.

“We, at one time, had more support from the state to run a larger curriculum,” Waller said. “The state has now slashed that. To keep what to had, [the university must] rely even more on student tuition dollars, which can only go so far.”

Recurring enrollment declines only add to the challenges universities face.

“And now those student dollars are declining because we don’t have as many students,” Waller said. “We’re forbidden by state law to run deficits, which means we have to tailor the courses we offer within the confines of a smaller budget.”

Since UW-Fox is by no means the only college that faces this issue, it has seen more competition than ever with four-year colleges vying for the two-year school’s freshman admissions.

“[That’s] part of the reason why we don’t have as many students. They want our students to come to them. We try to say to student [that] it still represents a savings because you spend far less in tuition here,” Waller said, “but those four-year campuses say, we have big-time sports, we have these wonderful facilities, and that’s what we compete against.”

All these factors and inevitabilities putting strains on the curriculum considered, it makes being anything but the bearers of bad news difficult for the CC.

“A lot of it’s painful. It really is. Especially if our enrollment declines looking for a way to cut a curriculum we’ve been pretty happy with that we know serves students well,” Gillard said.

“It isn’t a happy circumstance because you have to tell your colleagues, ‘I know it’s a really good course, but the fact of the matter is you’re an [adjunct] and we don’t have any qualified faculty members,’ so we have to cut the course,” Waller said.

However, there are solutions when assigning course sections to instructors. Waller recommends that professors look into offering online or point-to-point (inter-campus video-conferencing) courses in addition to or instead of face-to-face.

Online courses shift the payment obligation to UW Colleges online while being taught by a UW-Fox instructor, thereby allowing for higher enrollment by opening the course up to every UW Colleges Campus. Point-to-point allows instructors to expand enrollment to multiple campuses in a single section, allowing the campus to run the course for half the cost.

“I now only teach one section face-to-face on this campus. I get my full faculty load by combining a point-to-point section [with UW-Fond du Lac] in the fall and an online section in both fall and spring in order to do that,” Waller said. “Did I want to do that? No. [But it makes sense] given the constraints of the budget.”

While shifting ton online and point-to-point remains an economical solution, consolidating courses to point-to-point and online formats add one campus and 13 campuses, respectively, as potential enrollees for a single course section. Moreover, tuition for online classes are applied separately from courses from another UW Colleges campus, adding an additional $238 per credit to a full-time student’s existing tuition plateau of $2,517.16 for 12-18 credits, presenting additional financial challenges for students wanting to enroll in that course.

Many educators advocate for a change, since it is said that the many constraints Wisconsin two-year schools must face merely harm the quality of education for students.

“Many argue for the state [to] fork over more money for the curriculum, because at the end of the day, the ones who will feel the impact are students,” Waller said.

Despite the challenges of planning a viable curriculum, the CC still recognizes and strives for the mission of the two-year liberal arts college in providing a well-rounded education.

“We have the mission of our liberal arts colleges at the center of what we do, so that has to be a consideration in all of this. So you can’t be a liberal arts institution unless you can teach the languages, unless you teach Shakespeare, a philosophy class or five. So it’s kind of a guidepost, a limitation,” Gillard said.

The two-year college also uses that balance as a preparation tool for college success.

“We focus on teaching and learning and that we’re good at that and we have evidence to show that students who begin with us and then move on to four-years graduate more quickly and more successfully than students who begin at the four-years,” Waller said.

A finalized fall curriculum plan can be accessed the UW-Fox courses webpage.