By Mallory Warner
With millions of dollars stripped away from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s operating budget, administrators are seeking innovative and collaborative solutions to maintain the quality of a UW-Madison education.
These initiatives include: more efficient teaching assignments, more sponsored research projects, philanthropy and a new focus on “blended learning.”
UW-Madison’s base budget comes largely from the combination of student tuition and state funding—a fragile balance that was jeopardized when the 2011-’12 state budget cut state aid.
Signed by Governor Scott Walker, that budget cut $250 million in state funding for the UW system; UW-Madison’s share was $94 million. To help balance the state’s budget again, a second round of cuts—lapses from operating budgets–of $46.1 million was ordered in December for the UW system. That forced a new $17.5 million cut to UW-Madison.
As the cut permeates the university, many fear this deficiency will result in faculty layoffs, few re-hires and less class availability for students—changes that could affect the quality of education at Wisconsin’s largest public university.
In a press release issued in January, Interim UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward called upon university officials and department chairs to help cope with this deficit effectively by exploring alternative revenue generating sources and re-evaluating course work and classroom potentialities.
“Just saying we are entitled to money in this environment doesn’t work anymore,” Ward said at a March press conference. “We’ve got to show some energy that we’ve got to change agenda and we’d like people to invest in that changed agenda.”
Departments across the university have accepted the challenge and are struggling to deal with the new fiscal uncertainties.
The Physical Activity Program within the Kinesiology Department is no longer expected to exist after the fall 2012 semester, according to Physical Activity Program Coordinator Ronnie Carda. However, the department seeks to cross-list some of the lost one-credit PE courses to keep options available for students.
One example: Martial arts courses will be re-allocated to the Asian Studies Department, and Swimming Safety classes to the Education Department.
“Anytime you have these budget reduction exercises it really makes departments look long and hard at what they do and how they can do it better,” Carda said. “This has made our department look internally to see how we can better serve our students.”
Expanding their program to include more practical majors, like personal fitness training and corporate wellness, is an option Carda and the rest of the department are weighing. These paths would give students practical application opportunities and an undergraduate degree in an area where jobs exist.
Across campus, the School of Music, which lost five teaching assistant positions and a part time academic staff position, finds itself in the midst of developmental change.
“We are considering strategies that will allow us to be the best possible school we can be with the resources that we have,” said John Stevens, School of Music director. “I know that sounds like a [cliché], but it’s also the truth.”
While immediate solutions are not feasible, many departments across campus are reassessing how to balance what is being taught now versus existing resources.
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) started a strategic planning process that faculty and staff across the college can participate in to evaluate current and future decisions regarding financial insecurity.
“Strategic planning will hopefully make hard decisions a little easier or at least provide a bigger framework in which to make them,” said Heidi Zoerb, CALS assistant dean of external affairs. “We also try to encourage creativity for solutions among people.”
CALS has recently turned to philanthropy in order for additional resources and revenue. The philanthropy initiatives are multifaceted and typically involve outreach to past alumni in new and different ways, according to Zoerb.
CALS has also become active in soliciting sponsored research projects. Since research is a major component of CALS, these research projects offer partially funded opportunities to do research with companies looking for service.
“It seems clear that all of these cuts are not going to be instantaneously restored and, even if we are successful with some of these initiatives, some areas of science may change or student demand may change,” Zoerb said. “We need to have some kind of way to make those decisions collectively, and that is what the strategic planning is for.”
While the budget cuts have posed many obstacles for CALS, the college has used the opportunity to regain control of curriculums. CALS has restructured and renamed some of its departments, including the new environmental science major, and has already found increased numbers in student enrollment and popularity of programs.
On a campus level, administrators have moved on from the funding numbers-only game.
The chancellor plans to implement a new, innovative learning technique called “blended learning,” which is essentially a mix of online and face-to-face instructional techniques. Ward plans to minimize classroom capacity by offering self-paced online instruction with supplementary labs, where students will still be able to get a traditional face-to-face learning experience.
By increasing class capacity, utilizing the same amount of faculty and staff and maintaining a UW-Madison quality education, Ward anticipates revenue to increase.
Ward expects one-time technology costs and a one-year transition for students and faculty to accustom to the new learning model, but he hopes to be running—at least on a small scale—by fall 2013. If students and faculty can accept this new method of teaching, Ward believes the outcome will be extraordinary.
“We’ve [now] got an education model that was really created right after World War II. It’s fifty to sixty years old,” Ward said. “We’ve got new technology, let’s just re-envision what we can do.”
This blended learning technique is a component of the campus-wide Education Innovation push to hopefully find innovative solutions to the fiscal crisis.
“We are in the 21st century,” Ward said. “The curriculum should be changing, and it’s an opportunity to change the curriculum as well as to change the technology of communication.”