Travails of the trailblazers

December 17, 1999

How does a once-pioneering

university recover from a decade of lethargy? Harvey J. Kaye explains

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has resolved to find out whether a once-pioneering and dynamic public university can overcome a decade of institutional drift and lethargy.

On the eve of the new century, we have committed ourselves to redeeming our innovative tradition, not by nostalgically trying to restore the past, or foolishly jumping on the distance-education bandwagon, but by crafting fresh education challenges.

To do so, however, we must not only mobilise ourselves, but also persuade the university's board of regents to increase our campus budget by more than $3 million.

Ever since its establishment in 1965, UW-Green Bay has offered an alternative to the standard undergraduate education. The founders organised academic departments along interdisciplinary, problem-focused lines and dedicated the campus to environmental questions. Though we now limit environmental affairs to selected programmes, we have maintained our interdisciplinary structure and commitment to providing an alternative learning experience. Doing so, however, has not been easy.

It is unclear how exactly things went wrong - did we hire the wrong leaders or did the regents impose them? In any case, we found ourselves in the late 1980s with a chancellor whose priorities seemed to have little to do with maintaining the mission and guaranteeing academic excellence.

Without increasing faculty numbers, the administration raised student numbers from 3,000 to 4,500 and imposed a bizarre budget model that rewarded departments by how many students they processed (remember "cost centres"?). No one had time for imagination and innovation (indeed, we had to abandon certain distinctive programmes) and it became all the more difficult to pursue scholarship.

After several years, and retirements, we finally had the chance to recruit a new administrative team in the mid-1990s. Though the new chancellor, Mark Perkins, made no claim to possess an academic vision for the university, he brought with him a lot of spirit and energy. He set about addressing campus infrastructural needs and raising monies. But academic life continued to languish and, with excessive workloads and over-sized classes, faculty morale declined further.

Finally, in November 1998, I stood in the faculty senate and, following the chancellor's traditional monthly remarks, delivered what the minutes referred to as the "Kaye Challenge". Acknowledging Perkins's achievements, I urged him to secure the resources we needed to reverse the university's decline.

Though it did not seem so at first, chancellor Perkins "got it". In April 1999, he issued a challenge to the faculty executive committee. He said that he believed we might have the opportunity to secure a dramatic increase in our academic budget starting in the 2001-03 biennium. But to do so would require strong faculty, staff and student support and an educational vision or idea compelling enough to fire the regents' and community members' imaginations. Moreover, given the system's budget-building schedule, we would have to formulate our idea by summer's end.

There were those who opposed doing anything, either because experience had made them cynical or because a few months seemed inadequate to work up a vision capable of garnering campus-wide endorsement, or because they just did not grasp why we needed new ideas. Nonetheless, a few of us succeeded in pushing for the creation of "Task Force on the Compelling Idea". Led by vice chancellor Howard Cohen, the task force laboured hard - fantasising, arguing, negotiating, compromising and writing. We issued our report on time and we felt good about it.

We reaffirmed the university's mission and commitments. We declared that we aspired to prepare students to become "smart, articulate and engaged citizens and professional practitioners". We proposed initiatives in student development (including first-year seminars, mentoring and portfolio preparation), engaged learning (by way of professional internships and "learning through teaching") and citizenship (through community service, education and research). We offered original ideas and highlighted various departments' existing practices as endeavours worth pursuing across the campus.

Resistance came especially from senior faculty and seemed to have more to do with cynicism and fear than with the worth of the report's particulars.

There were moments when I truly expected the respective governance bodies to reject the entire package. Yet, to my astonishment, the student senate not only endorsed it, but also agreed to a possible $300 tuition increase. The faculty senate voted 17-6 in favour. Having pursued the project for so many months and prepared myself for defeat, I felt giddy at the outcome.

Of course, the real struggle starts now. We have no assurances. The chancellor will have to campaign strenuously to secure us the necessary outside support and funding. The faculty will have to figure out how to turn grand ideas into real learning experiences - and start doing so before we see any dollars coming our way.

If the regents reject our (totally unprecedented) request, the whole effort collapses. Still, most of us believe it is worth taking the risk. If the regents come through, we now stand a good chance not only to reinvigorate academic life at UW-Green Bay, but also once again to serve as pioneers in United States higher education.

Harvey J. Kaye is Ben and Joyce Rosenberg professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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