Art Market
My University Has Proposed Eliminating Its Art Majors—Here’s Why That’s a Mistake
Courtesy of Jaclyn Weitzel.

Courtesy of Jaclyn Weitzel.

In a move that has garnered local and national attention, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point (UW–SP) proposed eliminating 13 humanities majors—including art, English, history, and philosophy—earlier this month. At the same time, the school announced plans to expand over a dozen programs in the sciences that have “clear career paths.” The change would mean cutting majors in art history and studio arts, as well as BFAs in 2-D disciplines (painting and photography) and 3-D disciplines (sculpture, ceramics, and glass). Only the BFA in graphic design would survive.

As chair of the Department of Art & Design at UW–SP, I am devastated at the thought of closing these degree options. I have had a 30-year career at this institution. This is by far the lowest moment in those 30 years. An art major may not be a “clear career path,” but it is a satisfying one, and future students should have the option to pursue it.  

We have until August 1st to make this case to upper administration so they reconsider the proposal. One reason is job satisfaction. In a Wall Street Journal article published in March 2015, writer Jerry Cianciolo highlighted a pair of studies on the subject. One from 2011 found that 70 percent of those employed as fine artists were “very satisfied” with their job. That’s much higher than the results of a 2013 survey by the Gallup organization, which found that, on average, “70 percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ [with] and emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.”

Studying art and design trains students to find creative solutions to contemporary problems through visual awareness, problem solving, and cultural sensitivity. As one father of a former art student here wrote to our chancellor, “A fine art degree gives a person the ability to think freely and problem-solve, and to communicate an image to others in ways that many people cannot.”

Yes, art does not always provide an obvious trajectory from major to career. But we have students from the past two years who were honored with full rides to graduate programs in painting, glass, art history, and sculpture. We have other students making their careers as freelance artists, teaching in private high schools, and working at museums and galleries.

Courtesy of Jaclyn Weitzel.

Courtesy of Jaclyn Weitzel.

Recently, one of my studio art students stopped by my office to tell me that she got offered a job the same day she was interviewed. “You tell ‘them’ we do get jobs,” she said. I quickly put together an email for our college marketer, who asked for information about her new role. As I did some research about the company that hired her, I realized it was a nonprofit that offers support to abused families. My student’s future employer was thrilled that she planned to use the arts within her new position as a youth advocate. The arts may not lead to the best-paying jobs, but my student is totally fine with not making a large salary—instead using her artistic skill to do good in the world.  

I am a studio art major myself, with a BFA and MFA in painting. Studying painting at the university level defined the person I am. My husband came out of this university’s art program years ago and is now a full-time jewelry designer. We both have had amazingly active and exciting careers as artists, making a very comfortable income. I did not consider painting as an option when I enrolled in college, but I fell in love with my first college-level oil painting class. It changed my life. That is what happens at college: You find a life-long passion, if it is offered.  

Most of my students come to this institution aiming to study something else, discover they are miserable, and turn to art. My department embraces diversity and provides that community to all. The program is about 65 to 70 percent female, and my LGBTQ students always have a supportive home here. We enrich this university by who we are. I wonder what will happen to such students if the program is reduced. Students here at UW–SP are now discussing these proposed radical changes at meetings and forums. Of course, they are using their artistic skills to create buttons and posters as part of the conversation. A campus protest has already happened.

I am proud of what the Department of Art & Design has accomplished. This past December, we were accredited for another 10 years by the National Association of Schools of Art & Design (NASAD)—making UW–SP one of 352 institutions accredited by the association nationwide. Only six others are accredited in the state of Wisconsin.  

Courtesy of Jaclyn Weitzel.

Courtesy of Jaclyn Weitzel.

I realize there is a huge budget crisis at the school: It faces a deficit of $4.5 million over two years. But we in the art and design department are already working harder than ever before. I myself am retiring at the end of this year, and three other teachers who will leave or move to other institutions will not be replaced. In 2012, my department numbered 26 employees (faculty, staff, and academic staff). This fall, we will only number 12. We are doing way more with less. Prior to the announcement of the cuts, we agreed to increase faculty course load from three classes per semester to four starting in the fall of 2018—not a popular decision, but I thought the administration needed to see our willingness to help reduce the budget issues.  

Under the proposal, students would still be able to take classes in the arts, but not major in them. Currently, there are roughly 130 students who have declared art majors outside of graphic design. They have been assured they can complete their majors, but eventually, those options will be eliminated.

Regardless, I fear that the quality of education is going down by attrition as faculty retire or leave. After this semester, only two faculty members will be responsible for teaching every level of classes in printmaking, painting, photography, illustration, graphic narration, and advanced drawing. Other faculty normally responsible for the 3-D arts will pick up areas outside of their typical duties, including drawing, life drawing, and 2-D design.  

I have shed many tears about this proposal and had numerous sleepless nights. This is certainly not how I thought my career here would end. It has been an honor to work at this university and to positively affect so many students. I have loved teaching here. Many of my students are first-generation college educated, as I was. The UW–SP that I have devoted myself to is an institution that serves student and community needs. The institution that announced this proposal is not one I recognize anymore.

As a state employee, I am not allowed to mix my politics with my position.  However, I am trying to convey what is happening from the perspective of the chair of a department where the proposed cuts would be so substantial. Those of us who support the arts sometimes have blinders on. Because we know so well how art has positively affected us and the people around us, we do not speak up and demand that art is valued by society at large.

But imagine a world without artists. As the former U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities into existence in 1965, once said, “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Diane Bywaters

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Artsy.