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Coping with lost opportunities, lost excellence
RIVER FALLS—Lost opportunities to build Wisconsin's economy. Lost time addressing a crisis in education/workforce language skills. Lost teaching excellence through the departure of an emerging young faculty member.
Those are some of the more tangible setbacks at UW-River Falls after three years of budget readjustments and reductions. On a balance sheet, the reductions are numbers. But they have a very human face.
In January agriculture engineering Assistant Professor Derek Whitelock left his tenure-track position to accept a $20,000 salary increase from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
His departure is bemoaned by Dean Stephen Ridley of the College of Agriculture, Food & Environmental Sciences.
"He was a brilliant, committed young faculty person who was very popular with our students and faculty," Ridley says.
With a doctorate in engineering and prior experience at USDA, the highly marketable Whitelock was courted two years ago but stayed because his young family was sinking roots in River Falls.
But Whitelock fell victim to a common problem for new faculty members at UW-RF: an affluent region that leaves assistant professors struggling with housing costs. The Whitelocks owned a one-bedroom house. With a second child on the way and a frozen salary, it was clear he couldn't afford better housing.
"Everyone tried to go to bat for him," Ridley says. But Whitelock's salary problems are shared by many other equally deserving young faculty.
"He had to put his family first," Ridley explains Whitelock's decision to leave.
In his short time on campus, Whitelock initiated an innovative interdisciplinary course in real world engineering problem solving. He also launched a new course in constructing quarter-scale tractors.
This spring Whitelock's classes are being covered through overloads and Ridley hopes to have a replacement on hand in the fall of 2005.
"But we have lost a real resource to the campus and our region," he concludes.
The number of lost opportunities to build Wisconsin's economy by producing high-tech graduates worries Dean Barbara Nemecek of the College of Business and Economics.
Nemecek, who serves on the boards of both the Pierce County and St. Croix County economic development corporations, has her thumb on the pulse of the St. Croix Valley and its enormous growth potential as the Twin Cities continues to spill into Wisconsin.
Three years ago Wisconsin responded to that opportunity by funding 100 computer science information systems majors and two faculty members through the state's economic stimulus package.
Nemecek had little difficulty attracting the students—nearly doubling the size of the program in a short recruiting time. But the massive 2001 budget readjustment bill froze a faculty search. Since then another faculty member left and that position remains vacant.
Now there are three faculty, instead of five, teaching a laboratory-intensive program that's doubled in enrollment size.
The dean worries about the consequences of overloaded classes and other funding cuts that make it difficult to keep current with program software and hardware.
"We're really struggling," Nemecek says. "If you don't have the latest technology, then the students are out-of-date before they take their first job. That doesn't help students or employers, and it damages the reputation of our program."
Lost teaching positions also are hurting another program important to the state's economic development. Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages has never hit its stride since it was launched five years ago, according to Dean Gorden Hedahl of the College of Arts & Sciences.
The demand for graduates who can teach English to non-native speakers is significant both in the classroom and on the job site. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction annually issues scores of emergency licenses to deal with the crush of immigrants in Wisconsin's school systems. In the economy, nearly 10 percent of Wisconsin's agricultural workforce members are non-native speakers. In the St. Croix Valley, employers are feeling an increasing impact with Twin Cities metropolitan workforce members speaking 115 native languages.
Staffing problems—including lost positions, retirement, frozen searches and a personal leave—with no resolution because of a stressed budget is leaving the program unfulfilled. The outcome is that a goal to enroll 35 ESL majors each year is at only half of that target.
That's just one program problem for Hedahl, who has lost five teaching positions in the College.
"The cutbacks in essential faculty are going to have an increasing impact on our abilities to provide effective education. And clearly, the lack of raises and the ability to offer competitive salaries is a real threat to our long-term health," Hedahl says.
These staffing problems are compounded by crunches on technology support, cutbacks in library journals, and inflationary erosion in frozen supplies and equipment and travel budgets.
Hedahl says that faculty and staff have been remarkable in trying to cope. But he's wary of the future as he views an institution whose financial health he thinks is becoming tenuous.