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Council rejects UWS resolution

Haven Van Sickle, 9, was among more than a dozen faculty and students to address the Superior City Council on Tuesday as councilors weighed a resolution seeking to rescind program suspensions at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Among the suspensions is the journalism program, which would eliminate Haven’s ability to study journalism in at UWS. Courtesy of Jennifer Van Sickle

When Riley Van Sickle, 12, graduates in 2023, she'll have to weigh her options — either pursue a degree in political science or attend her mother's alma mater.

When her sister Haven, 9, graduates in 2027, the choice will be between a journalism degree and attending the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

"I think me, and my future classmates, deserve the opportunity to study political science at UWS," Riley Van Sickle told the Council on Tuesday night.

The girls, daughters of Councilor Jennifer Van Sickle, joined UWS faculty and students to illustrate for the Council the potential loss of opportunity stemming from the suspension of 25 programs at UWS.

More than a dozen people lined up behind Chancellor Renee Wachter to rally the Council's support for a resolution calling for the suspensions to be rescinded and to demonstrate support for UWS students and faculty.

"No one likes to see a program suspended," said Wachter, who defended the decision to provide a strong array of programs that serve the region, meet performance metrics similar to those of technical colleges, and improve student success and efficiency.

"We made the decision for a number of reasons," Wachter said, noting the university has to show improvement to remain viable.

"At the time they were suspended, there were only 85 students enrolled in these programs, less than 3 percent of the student body," Wachter said. "When they graduate, there would only be 42 students enrolled in those programs."

But for most who addressed the Council, it was the process by which those programs were suspended that was troublesome, not the decision itself.

"We can say that it is not the overwhelming majority of students on this campus that are opposed to the decision," said Ben Damberg, vice president of the student government. "They are opposed to the process ... they are OK with the decision, but they have extreme concerns about the process going forward."

It's a concern he said he shares personally, and he would like to see student government involved in the process.

"What we are looking at around the UW System is the gutting of the system," said UWS Professor Joel Sipress, a member of the faculty for more than 20 years. "When you look at the metrics the chancellor is referring to, it is to emphasize the production of diplomas, above all else, including academic quality."

Sipress said if the suspensions stand, UWS, which started as a teacher's college, will be out of the business of training high school teachers.

Brent Notbohm, a 16-year staff member in Communicating Arts, said he's lost half the programs in his department.

"It's sad it's come to this," Notbohm said. "I'm here because I've not heard a satisfactory answer from our administration about why we did not work together to solve our common problems."

Jim Ronding, who grew up near the university, said it is Madison, not the UWS administration, that is "the enemy," forcing a "smart" decision to keep the area from feeling the neglect coming from the Capitol. He questioned the Council's involvement.

"Is this really something you're going to do — take a position on this?" Ronding asked councilors.

In the end, four city councilors — Craig Sutherland, Keith Kern, Dan Olson and Jack Sweeney — defeated the motion to adopt the resolution. Councilor Brent Fennessey abstained, stating he didn't believe it the role of the Council to second-guess a university decision.

The decision could have gone the other way.

If not for that abstention, Mayor Jim Paine said he would have broken what would have likely been a tie in favor of the resolution.

Councilors Tylor Elm, Ruth Ludwig, Esther Dalbec, Van Sickle and Warren Bender voted in favor the resolution.

A majority of the full 10-member body is required for a motion to pass; the mayor can only vote to break a tie.

Van Sickle, who introduced the resolution after the Council referred it to Tuesday night, found the decision "incomprehensible."

Thursday night, the Douglas County Board took up a similar resolution after the Superior Telegram's press deadline. For the board's decision, go to superiortelegram.com or pick up a copy of Tuesday's paper for the full story.

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