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Opinion

UW System budget cuts could deflate UWRF art department

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February 25, 2015

Four weeks after Gov. Scott Walker’s initial proposal to cut $300 million from the UW system, $4.2 million from UW-River Falls, many students still aren’t aware that massive changes will be taking place on our campus within the next year, though talk of the proposal has reached the far corners of faculty offices, Kleinpell Fine Arts (KFA) bathroom stalls, and even the UWRF confessions Facebook page.

The final numbers will not come out for at least a few more weeks, but students in some departments are already holding their breath a little more than others.

I attended the first Gallery 101 opening of the semester in this department last Friday in the lobby of KFA. Currently featured are pieces by veteran and active duty military members of the university’s art department. Photographs by Mike Vance depicted his experience in Afghanistan, with stunning photos of medics on the battlefield.

Harley Hotchkiss had a number of glass-works displayed, along the theme of military service as well. I found an abstract porcelain sculpture most aesthetically pleasing, though a fauvist style colored pencil drawing came in a close second.

I’ve been trying to attend more events like this on campus this semester, one of which was the town-hall style meeting chancellor Chancellor Dean Van Galen held on Feb. 4. It highlighted what the cuts could possibly entail for our campus. Speculation is that there will be a large reduction in faculty and professor salaries, and possible reciprocity reform.

The UWRF mission statement includes all the colleges, but a PDF summarizing the budget makes clear what the priorities of our institution are: “Many of our programs produce graduates that have high employment rate in critical industries in the state, such as the agriculture/dairy industry. We are also continuing to prepare a large portion of the region’s K-12 school educators. We are focusing on areas that the nation has identified as critical needs for future economic prosperity, such as [strong STEM], education and undergraduate research opportunities, and focusing on global education.”

The humanities, let alone fine arts, are not mentioned at all in this document. Van Galen stated at the Feb. 4 meeting: “Everything is on the table, but if some areas get cut less, others get cut more.”

Statements like this have art students worried. The ability to craft Venetian style vases, express personal emotions through watercolor, or know-how of folk yarn dyeing techniques are not sought after skills in the “critical industries” of our state. However, while not extremely marketable in the modern, consumer based world, they are skills vital to the very essence of the human experience.

This has been widely studied by philosophers, anthropologists and historians. The general consensus is that art is perhaps one of the most natural things we do as humans; we need visual expression of humanity that can be interpreted and understood through the ages. The oldest known cave wall paintings show how societies were organized; art is still considered a reflection of society to this day.

It is odd that such a vital aspect of civilization isn’t a mandatory area of study; you don’t have to take Art 100 to fulfill your general education requirements. Perhaps UWRF should take notes from Washington College, whose president said in an interview that there is a heavy emphasis on art for students in all areas of study, as visual art “helps us make sense of our world, broaden our experience and understanding. Art enables us to imagine the unimaginable, and to connect us to the past, the present, and the future, sometimes simultaneously.”

It would be a shame, to say the least, if the budget cuts proposed by Walker resulted in more cuts to the art department of UWRF than are already planned. UWRF has arguably the best Bachelor in Fine Arts (BFA) program in the UW System. This may change with decreased funding to provide art students with the instruction, tools, and resources necessary to create art.

Art students I talked with said they already feel that the art department doesn’t hold a very esteemed place outside of KFA.

Tyler Pelton, who is pursuing a BFA in glass, said: “As an art student, I feel like there is a huge disparity between how good our art department is and how much it is valued on this campus.”

Pelton said he would highly consider transferring to an art school if the inevitable cuts result in lower quality facilities.

Lines can be drawn between the budget cuts proposal and an attempt to edit the heart of what the UW System stands for, the “Wisconsin Idea.” Walker proposed striking language about public service and improving the human condition, and deleting the phrase “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

I would agree with UW-Milwaukee journalism professor James Baugham, who said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “It’s a very materialistic definition of knowledge that’s very off-putting.”

In the deliberation of this legislation, it will come down to what officials believe the purpose of a university education is supposed to be. The governor has made it clear what he believes: college is merely to produce graduates ready to enter the workforce and become diligent consumers.

In a press conference, Walker stated: “Learning’s important, but ultimately it’s most important for people to get the chance to get the education that they need to succeed in the workforce.”

This is very different from my personal beliefs about college education, and a lot of students would agree with me. Yes, the main reason I’m here is to learn how to practice journalism. But, after deeply contemplating my education, I also believe that higher education should be a “search for the truth” like stated in the Wisconsin Idea.

This means something different to each student; for myself it means learning how to think analytically, how to consider a spectrum of perspectives on any issue, and to generally become a more enlightened citizen, rather than consumer, of this nation.

In an educational system designed for the industrial revolution, art is always the first to go when it comes to budget cuts. It would be silly to believe that the kids smoking cigarettes in the kiln yard who just want to make stuff out of clay are as high up on the priority list as a biomedical engineering or mathematics education major.

Everything is still speculation at this point, but I hope for posterity that a drastic defunding of the art department will not be a major solution. We need to keep creating mindfully educated graduates who are able to beautifully convey the experiences of modern human society to future generations.

Molly Kinney is a journalism student with a political science minor. She enjoys reading, camping, music, art and exploring new cities in her free time. In the future, she would love to travel the world and cover politics for NPR.