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Provost at center of the debate over fate of the history major in Wisconsin defends his approach

HNN Editor:  Greg Summers, a historian, is the provost at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is the "chief architect of a sweeping proposal that attempts to transform the school with 7,725 students into 'a new kind of regional university.' A regional university without a history major." 

... Greg Summers is an environmental historian by trade. He received his doctorate at Madison, and he has worked at Stevens Point his entire career, starting in 2001. But it wasn’t his own department—the history department—that led him to the university.

Instead, Stevens Point’s renowned College of Natural Resources drew him in. The college produces many of the state’s foresters, wildlife managers, and environmental engineers. “I came here wanting to make sure that every one of those folks that we trained in the College of Natural Resources were going to go out with an understanding that history mattered,” Summers said, “and that it was relevant to their professional work.” Many colleges, he argues, fail to give their STEM grads that broader understanding, due in large part to the general-education curriculum.

“We hear a lot from employers that they don’t want to choose between graduates who have some technical ability versus a graduate who has a liberal-arts major,” Summers said. “They really want both of those things.” He said he’s working to position Stevens Point to provide that balance. “We’re trying to search for ways to better integrate the liberal-arts education that we have always provided into all of our majors,” he said, so that students don’t have to choose between a major in the liberal arts and “a major that doesn’t really engage them meaningfully.” Essentially, he said, selecting a major in the hopes of getting a job shouldn’t prevent a student from receiving a basic liberal-arts education.

But he’s had a hard time getting faculty on board with the administration’s way of achieving that goal. Late last month, more than 100 current and former faculty and staff at the university called for the removal of Summers as well as Chancellor Bernie Patterson. “While Provost Summers was hiring more faculty than he now thinks we can afford, UWSP undertook a lengthy strategic planning process.” they wrote. “But excellent adjectives, no matter how elegantly arrayed, do not constitute a strategic plan. Instead of being guided by a consistent vision, UWSP’s leadership has instead been erratic, misguided, and in some cases even incompetent.”

Summers, however, argues that the strategy isn’t reactive—or inconsistent, for that matter. Instead, he said, the university is trying to think “10 years down the road,” to what the students and the state will need. The demand, Summers said, “is coming from working adults on college campuses who cannot come to campus on Tuesday morning at 10 to attend a three-credit class, and who may not be looking for a full-fledged baccalaureate degree.” Rather, “they might be in need of knowledge and learning and professional advancement,” he told me. Besides, he argued, “too often when people have these conversations, they tend to conflate the value of the major with the value of the discipline.” This isn’t an attack on the liberal arts, he said, but a push to open up liberal-arts courses to more students in significant ways.

Summers, too, lays claim to the Wisconsin Idea, and has proposed an “Institute for the Wisconsin Idea” that will serve as the hub that generates a revamped general-education curriculum. “We want to really give [the institute] first priority at defining the curriculum in the most meaningful way we can for our students and making sure it’s integrated with their chosen professional pathway,” he said.

“We need to make sure that knowledge is relevant, and it’s applied,” he said. The university’s competitiveness in the future higher-education market depends on it....