Student Senate proposes changes to improve education at UWRF

Posted February 10, 2016

After proposing a set of ambitious suggestions aimed at improving education at UW-River Falls, Student Senate now is facing the harsh reality of trying to make changes under budget cuts.

The Academic Priorities document, written by the Student Senate Academic Council, were passed by the Student Senate during its Feb. 2 meeting. The priorities are recommendations by the Student Senate about what should be changed at the university at the academic level.

The document is now set to be voted on by the Faculty Senate. However, even if approved, it may take time before changes can be implemented.

The document focuses on five academic priorities: General Education reform, low cost and high-impact study abroad, technological innovation, improved transparency and institutional reform.

Peter Vermeland, Academic Council chair, said that the council went about choosing the Academic Priorities by considering concerns from students and looking at what had been passed in previous years but still needed work. This is how the recommendation to change PE 108 (Health and Fitness for Life) from a one-credit online course to a three-credit course that meets in person came to be, Vermeland said.

“We wanted it to be worthy of like a three-credit course that really provides students with a basis of living a healthy lifestyle and understanding what that means,” Vermeland said.

Other changes to General Education in the Academic Priorities are the addition of a high-impact requirement, a foreign language requirement for students in the College of Business and Economics, remodeling the remedial course structure so that students will be earning credit for the “lowest level accredited course in that field of instruction,” and the addition of a full-year first-year seminar by the fall semester of 2016.

The document also recommends the addition of low cost high-impact study abroad opportunities in multiple cities in Canada and the Caribbean to allow students to study abroad affordably.

The technological innovation changes include requiring all courses to have a Desire2Learn portal, keeping D2L course access open after the course has ended, combining all student portals to require only one login, creating a graduation checklist, and adding a D2L Early Warning System that notifies the advisor if a student’s grades become noticeably lower.

“We really feel that there needs to be like this safety net where if you really start dipping academically, someone’s there to pull you aside and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? How can we help?'” Vermeland said. “We just want to be able to give students the knowledge that if they are struggling, we want to help.”

Recommended changes to the faculty and course evaluations include reestablishing in-class evaluations, redesigning the faculty evaluations, and creating a document that is available to students explaining how the evaluations are used when it comes to retention and tenure decisions.

The institutional reform laid out in the Academic Priorities include creating a centralized internship office at UWRF, changing the pricing models of how much students pay the university for internship credits, changing the way unpaid internships are handled by requiring the internship office by providing a set percentage of paid internship opportunities, lobbying businesses to offer more “fruitful” internships, and adding a student review board for each college at the university.

Faye Perkins, chair of Health and Human Performance and vice chair of Faculty Senate, said that although she cannot speak for the Faculty Senate as a whole, she is impressed with the Academic Priorities but believes that putting many of the recommendations laid out in the document into effect would be near impossible due to UWRF’s current budget and lack of resources.

“Because of the extensiveness and some of the things that they say in (the Academic Priorities), it might be a bit na├»ve to think that some of these changes can happen as fast as they want them to happen,” said Perkins.

The UW-System was hit with a $250 million budget cut in 2015, with UWRF facing a $3.31 million cut. This resulted in the reduction of about 50 full-time equivalent positions at the university through layoffs and not filling positions that were vacant due to retirement, attrition and non-renewal, according to the university’s 2015-2017 Biennial Budget Impacts document.

“We are bare bones,” said Perkins. “So if you want to add something, generally that means you have to eliminate something.”

Vermeland said that he isn’t surprised that there is pushback when it comes to the Academic Priorities, and said that although he recognizes how hard it will be to implement all of the changes, he still believes that they are necessary to improving the university.

“I think it’s worth it, because these are the changes the students have asked for,” said Vermeland. “And I know it may take years, but I think it’s worth it.”

Faculty Senate is planning to vote on the Academic Priorities at its next meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 17. The Academic Priorities document can be found at Student Senate’s FalconSync page.