Survey: some teachers seek escape amid looming cuts

Many UW-Eau Claire employees seek work elsewhere ahead of upcoming downsize


Photo by Ryan Alme

Story by Nate Beck, News Editor

In 1983, Deb Freund, and her husband moved to the last place they planned to live.

After Freund’s husband finished his law degree, the pair probed parks per capita, public school funding and property tax rates in communities across the country, she said.

They found their utopia: Wisconsin. The couple bought a farmhouse south of Eau Claire and raised two children there.

“I had planned to die at my farm in Wisconsin,” Freund, now academic staff in the UW-Eau Claire biology department, said. “I was going to be carried out of my farmhouse in a pine box.”

But after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed a plan inside the 2015-17 state budget, Feb. 3, to chop $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System over the next two years, Freund and her husband doubted their decision to stay in the state.

And after Freund learned cuts at Eau Claire will impact academic staff — teachers who aren’t pursuing tenure — she and her husband elected to sell their farmhouse and abandon Eau Claire, she said.

“This is not the state we made a commitment to,” Freund said, “Wisconsin has changed.”

Morale on campus

Most Eau Claire faculty and staff aren’t confident about the future of the university and many are currently seeking employment outside the UW System, according to a Feb. 10 survey conducted by The Spectator.

Walker’s proposed budget plan, including the UW System funding cut, calls for a tuition freeze through July 2017 and would deem the UW System a “public authority.”

Eau Claire will likely absorb a $7.5 million cut in state funding, on top of a current $4.5 million budget deficit.

The Spectator sent the survey to 814 tenured faculty, tenure-seeking faculty, academic staff and office staff in each academic department at Eau Claire. Of those, 268 completed the survey. All survey results were recorded anonymously.

About 51 percent of respondents reported they were “definitely not” or “probably not” optimistic about the future of the university, 14 percent reported they were “definitely” or “probably” optimistic about the future, 34 percent were “not sure,” according to the survey.

The Spectator survey indicates 32 percent of faculty and staff are currently seeking a job outside the UW System; an additional 31 percent declined to answer.

Many faculty and staff are skeptical about the UW-Eau Claire administration’s ability to make wise cuts, the survey indicates.

About 40 percent of respondents said they were “not sure” university administrators will make cuts wisely, 37 percent reported they were “probably” or “definitely” confident in Eau Claire leaders, 24 percent reported they “probably” or “definitely” weren’t.

Of the total respondents, 60 percent have worked at UW-Eau Claire for more than 7 years and 60 percent were tenured faculty or faculty seeking tenure, 32 percent were academic staff and 8 percent were office staff.

About 38 percent “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the proposed plan to deem the UW System a “public authority,” 29 percent “agree” or “strongly agree,” 34 percent “neither agree nor disagree.”

“The public does not understand what we do and they don’t understand the immediate long-term economic and social impacts this university makes,” a tenured faculty member who reported seeking a job outside the university, wrote in a short answer section of the survey.

Galapagos gone

Freund’s keynote achievement as an educator doesn’t rest under fluorescent lights in an Eau Claire classroom, or between pages of a research journal.

After Freund spent three years making phone calls and sending emails, the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, an Ecuadorian province, granted her and 15 students an invitation to study local wildlife over summer break.

Researchers were wary when Freund first contacted them, she said. By the time scientists train students to conduct productive research, the summer’s over, students leave, they told her.

But once the scientists granted Freund and her students access to the program, Eau Claire students proved hardworking and valuable to ongoing research on the island, she said. And scientists have continued to invite the group back.

No other university holds group approval for similar research projects, she said.

But university contacts with project leaders on the Galapagos Islands will evaporate when Freund leaves, she said.

“It’s a shame to see it ripped to shreds for what amounts to political grandstanding,” Freund said. “I’m going to take a job anywhere that’s not the University of Wisconsin System.”

Wilson Taylor, Eau Claire biology department chair, said Freund’s Galapagos project is an example of “high-impact” programs that could vanish when academic staff leave or are forced out of the university.

Taylor said upcoming cuts will force his department to eliminate seats in classes that cater to students outside the biology department, and focus on preserving room for Eau Claire’s 600-plus biology majors.

“We’re being driven to circle the wagons,” he said.

Dustin Zebro plans to graduate from Eau Claire in spring 2017 with a degree in environmental public health. But he’s concerned  proposed cuts will cause the university to dissolve that program.

“If I have a degree from a program that doesn’t exist anymore, that would be trouble,” he said.

State cuts, combined with Eau Claire’s current deficit, could force the university to eliminate about 100 jobs next year, Chancellor James C. Schmidt said Tuesday after a meeting in the Davies Center.

Schmidt said the university will eliminate about 27.3 Full Time Equivalent positions next year to even Eau Claire’s existing

$4.5 million deficit by about $2.8 million.

But the university will likely need to trim about $9 million more from its budget next year, Schmidt said. About 85 percent of the university’s budget funds faculty and staff.

And academic staff will likely absorb more cuts than tenured or tenure-seeking faculty,

he said.

“If a good friend of mine came up to me on campus and thought that they could be potentially affected by the cut, as a friend, I’d say you should check, but it’s very troubling,” Schmidt said. “The reputation of the state does affect our ability to attract good people.”