STEVENS POINT, Wis. — Chancellor Bernie Patterson’s message to his campus was blunt: To remain solvent and relevant, his 125-year-old university needed to reinvent itself.
Some longstanding liberal arts degrees, including those in history, French and German, would be eliminated. Career-focused programs would become a key investment. Tenured faculty members could lose their jobs. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Dr. Patterson explained in a memo, could “no longer be all things to all people.”
Dr. Patterson’s plan came as Stevens Point and many other public universities in rural America face a crisis. Such colleges have served as anchors for their regions, educating generations of residents. Now student enrollment has plummeted, money from states has dropped and demographic trends promise even worse days ahead.
Universities like Stevens Point are experiencing the opposite of what is happening at some of the nation’s most selective schools, like Harvard, Northwestern and the University of California, Berkeley, where floods of applications have led to overwhelming numbers of rejected students.
But critics say that in trying to carve out a sustainable path for Stevens Point — and build a model for other struggling, regionally focused universities — administrators are risking the very essence of the four-year college experience.
“Part of the fear is, is this an attempt to really kind of radically change the identity of this institution?” asked Jennifer Collins, a political-science professor, who wondered aloud whether Stevens Point would become a “pre-professional, more polytechnic type of university.”
Kim Mueller, 21, a senior who hopes to become a history teacher at a Wisconsin high school, said her first reaction to the proposal was: “What is a university without a history major?”
Nestled in a city of 26,000 residents in the middle of the state, Stevens Point has seen its fortunes rise and fall with its region. Founded more than a century ago to train teachers, and distinguished by Old Main, an 1894 building with a famous cupola that overlooks the campus, the college grew as people moved to the area’s paper mills and farms.
The college became a pathway to the middle class, a respected place to get a bachelor’s degree without spending too much money or moving too far from home. By the 1970s, it had strengthened its liberal arts programs and joined the state university system.
But in recent decades, troubling signs cropped up. Young families left rural Wisconsin for Madison and Milwaukee, which had their own University of Wisconsin campuses. Fewer students graduated from high school in the area around Stevens Point, including a 14 percent drop in its home county from 2012 to 2016. And under former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican whose term ended Monday, state funding declined and a mandatory tuition freeze made it hard for the college to make up the difference.
By last spring, the university, which has about 7,700 students, was looking at a two-year deficit of about $4.5 million. The state, which had provided half the university’s budget in the 1970s, was now covering only 17 percent of it.
“Sometimes, I liken it to climate change,” said Greg Summers, the provost, who helped come up with the plan to remake Stevens Point. “The higher-ed climate has changed profoundly and it’s not going back to the old normal.”
The turmoil is not unique to Stevens Point, where nearly half the students are the first generation in their family to attend college. In large parts of the Midwest and Northeast, public universities far from urban centers are hurting for students and money. And they are facing painful choices.
Almost four hours from Chicago, Western Illinois University eliminated dozens of vacant faculty positions last year and announced it would lay off 24 professors, including some with tenure.
In Maine, the state university system folded a small campus into its flagship and merged some functions at two other remote campuses.
And in Vermont, where state funding for higher education is among the lowest in the country, officials consolidated two small public colleges into a single university to try to save about $2 million a year.
“We tried to look ahead and take action before we were not able to help ourselves,” said Jeb Spaulding, the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, whose colleges are also pushing apprenticeship and nondegree programs in hopes of attracting more students.
The locations of college campuses can be a reflection of a bygone America. Most universities were founded generations ago, when rural communities were thriving and when traveling across a state to a larger urban campus was more complicated. As people moved toward cities and the Sun Belt, and as cars and planes connected the country, many rural universities have fallen on hard times.
“There is and ought to be a bit of a scramble to redefine and resituate themselves,” said David Tandberg, a vice president for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “There’s nothing they can do about birthrates. That’s something they have no control about. So it’s opening up different markets and offering different services.”
The same trends that have led to cuts at rural public colleges, which often struggle but almost never close, have forced some private colleges out of business, including Dana College in Nebraska and St. Catharine College in Kentucky. Some historically black institutions, both public and private, have also faced financial and enrollment challenges. South Carolina State University fended off threats of closing in recent years and has struggled to recruit students to its rural campus. Wilberforce University, a private historically black institution in Ohio, has faced accreditation questions and budget deficits.
All the while, flagship public campuses in many states, including Wisconsin, have remained vibrant. Those universities often have much larger endowments and the ability to recruit high-performing students from across the country, insulating them somewhat from funding crises.
“Budget cuts will give the flagship university a cold and the regional public colleges pneumonia,” said Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
At Stevens Point, where flashing signs announce the next hockey game and low-slung buildings sit near evergreens, administrators are trying to make up for increasingly elusive freshmen.
Their solutions: Recruit more midcareer adults to enroll in programs such as nursing. Promote majors such as business and education with clear career paths. And invest in teaching people specialties with local appeal — forestry or fisheries management — on a campus with a 280-acre nature conservancy that doubles as an outdoor laboratory for natural resources students.
In the coming months, after a final round of campus review, Dr. Patterson will present a list of proposed changes to the University of Wisconsin regents. Dr. Summers, the provost, said that by making hard decisions now and “doing fewer things better,” the university could find a more stable future.
The proposal was especially bitter for liberal arts professors, who have viewed their disciplines as the backbone of the college experience but now fear losing their jobs. Stevens Point administrators have winnowed an initial list of majors to eliminate (English and political science were among those spared), but some faculty members said they remained queasy, uncertain about what additional changes the future will bring.
“I’m afraid it’s done a great deal of damage to the university’s reputation with current high school students and current high school teachers,” said Lee Willis, the chairman of Stevens Point’s history department, who said there was already stiff competition for students with the University of Wisconsin’s other four-year campuses, five of which are within 115 miles of Stevens Point.
“The fear,” Dr. Willis said, “is that we’re going to get into a death spiral that we won’t be able to pull out of.”
Across the campus, where the mascot is the Pointer, a dog, and the school colors, purple and gold, adorn sweatshirts and signs, there has been skepticism and anxiety.
“If you want a career-focused program, I think then you could look at a community college or tech school,” said Madeline Abbatacola, a senior studying history and wildlife ecology. Universities like hers, she added, “have a different lane.”
Last spring, students held a protest on the campus sundial. In the fall, some professors signed a letter seeking the replacement of university leaders, and some professors are applying for jobs elsewhere. And even those like Dona Warren, a longtime philosophy professor who did not take a position on Dr. Patterson’s plan, said they believed the campus was at an inflection point.
“Everyone is just scared to death about the bottom line,” Dr. Warren said. “The suspense movie music has reached its crescendo, and either something’s going to jump out from the corners or something really good is going to happen.”