‘Reclaim the UW’: students and faculty speak out against budget cuts

Progressive Students & Alumni host press conference in solidarity with protests in Madison

More stories from Rachyl Houterman


Photo by Kar Wei Cheng

From left to right: Hillary Smith, the chief of staff for Student Senate; Peter Hart-Brinson, associate professor of sociology; Jeff Smith, organizer for Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative of Western Wisconsin; and Jeremy Gragert, city councilman for District 3.

UW-Eau Claire hosted a press conference held in solidarity with students in Madison who were protesting UW System budget cuts on Wednesday.

The press conference, organized by Progressive Students & Alumni (PSA), featured speakers Hillary Smith, chief of staff on Student Senate and secretary of PSA; Peter Hart-Brinson, associate professor of sociology at Eau Claire and president of United faculty & Academic Staff (AFT Local 6481); and Jeff Smith, organizer for Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative of Western Wisconsin.

Jeremy Gragert, city councilman for District 3, helped organize the event and made opening remarks for the speakers.

Titled “Reclaim the UW,” the protests were a response to proposed program cuts at UW-Stevens Point, where 13 liberal arts majors are at threat of being axed and replaced with technical studies deemed more relevant to workforce needs. Classes for the programs would still be taught, but the degree programs would be eliminated.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the move was prompted in response to the university’s $4.5 million budget deficit. Protesters linked the issue to repeated UW System budget cuts.

“We cannot cut our way to prosperity,” Hart-Brinson said. “We need to invest in our future. So we are here to reclaim the UW that helped build this great state.”

Hart-Brinson spoke of the effect that budget cuts have had on class sizes and faculty. Larger class sizes reduce the quality of education and make it harder for students to develop a relationship with their professors that fosters success, he said.

Hillary Smith also made the connection between budget cuts and the recent UW System restructuring, where two-year colleges are being merged with four-year universities due to financial issues.

“Funding is the root of these issues,” Hillary Smith said. “If a more systematic shift does not occur to financially strengthen the UW System again, higher education in Wisconsin faces a bleak feature.”

Addressing the threatened humanities programs at Stevens Point, Hart-Brinson called the situation a “manufactured budget crisis caused by years of budget cuts.”

Jeff Smith called the move an attack on the Wisconsin Idea, the UW System’s mission statement of solving problems beyond the classroom. In 2015, Gov. Scott Walker proposed changing the Wisconsin Idea but ultimately did not.

“They’re taking the backdoor route to remove the Wisconsin Idea and what it stands for, and the mission of our UW System through the cuts they have proposed — through an administration that is actually playing along,” Smith said.

Mike O’Brien, 64, of Eau Claire, attended Wednesday’s press conference and called the proposed changes at Stevens Point “distressing.” Having graduated from both Eau Claire and UW-Madison, O’Brien said he believes a liberal arts education is what allows students and graduates to think criticall

“English majors can think scientifically just as STEM majors can understand humanities, and developing these interdisciplinary ways of thinking starts with liberal arts education,” Hillary Smith said.

Jeff Smith emphasized the role students must play in order to see change, drawing similarities to United States high schoolers’ recent activism on the controversial issue of gun control.

“That’s what’s going to have to happen here in Wisconsin for education — the same thing,” Jeff Smith said. “It’s going to have to come from the people who are most affected.”

Hillary Smith said students can get organized by getting involved with the intergovernmental affairs commission of Student Senate. Later this year, students will attend the Rally for Excellence down in Madison to lobby legislators about student concerns.