Archive for February 5th, 2015

This year has been stressful so far.  I’ll get to that more in a later post … really … I promise!  I want to focus this post on higher education, specifically at the University of Wisconsin.

I think many people who’ve not been through a public university really understand what these institutions provide.  On the outside, sure, they’re just another place to acquire the knowledge you need to embark on a career.  But they’re really much more than that.  I’ll start with that p word I put in there … public.  Public institutions are supposed to be accessible to the public (at least more so than their private/for-profit counterparts).  In many cases, that means they are government subsidized to enable that access.  In return, not only do these institutions provide quality learning for the students who enroll there, they provide a resource of information to the public and perform a variety of outreach activities. They do all of this while competing against private institutions for both students and the quality faculty to teach those students.

I say all of this in light of yet another large budget cut directed at the U of Wi.  “Faculty should teach more” they say.  “They only teach an average of 14 hrs a week” they say.  “Be more efficient” they say.  For fans of market competition, they’re conveniently forgetting some truths.  For one, faculty do far more than lecture.  They mentor research projects.  They advise career paths.  They grade tests.  They plan course materials.  They research and revise course materials to keep them up-to-date.  They perform outreach, such as participating in STEM presentations to area grade schools, or hosting science days to expose middle schoolers to cutting edge demonstrations. They counsel students who turn to them for help. They blow on a spark of knowledge to turn it into flame of passion for it. Yes, there are some “bad eggs”, but generally our faculty put in far more time outside of lecturing than they do behind the podium. As far as teaching more, prospective students are looking for attention that requires low student:faculty ratios. So not only are we dealing with budget pressure that deters good faculty from wanting to work at the UW, we also are being pressured to teach more students with fewer faculty, thus driving students away.

I’ve observed a lot of general hostility towards the comprehensive education that our 4-yr UW schools provide. That’s understandable. After all, why should an engineer need to take an art class, right?  That’s a waste of time. Until you realize that down the road, that engineer could be looking at the problem of how to display an image and think back to the art class where they learned about pointillism and construct the image point-by-point. If that engineer has to write up any proposals or supporting documentation, they ought to have some language skills. Problem solving works best with a variety of viewpoints, and there is something of a trend in that direction, bringing together multiple disciplines to solve problems. A university degree provides more well-rounded individuals who are going to be better problem solvers.

I wish more of our voters, as well as our legislators, understood what they have, before they try to trim it and mold it into something else entirely.