When Laura Rozema decided to go back to college, the University of Nebraska at Kearney felt like the right fit.
Her reasoning: Her hometown school seemed more personal, much smaller than the 30,000-student campus she had started college at outside Nebraska. And she wanted to learn, and to act, inside UNK’s theater program – a program the Kearney native had grown up around.
Rozema, now a senior, was doing just that, rehearsing on stage for the department’s performance of “The Tempest” when she heard the news: University leaders had proposed ending the theater program she loves. They also wanted to end UNK’s philosophy program, where her father, David Rozema, has taught for 30 years.
“It was tragically poetic being in the middle of something that UNK wanted to take away,” Rozema said.
The University of Nebraska’s most small-town campus has proposed axing 13 majors, many of them – like theater, French, German and music performance – in the areas of the arts and humanities. These proposed cuts, which would help close a $4.3 million budget gap at UNK, are just the start of even bigger slashes into the university budget at each of its four campuses.
Systemwide, NU faces a massive, $58 million budget shortfall over the next two years.
But the proposed cuts at Kearney also signify a growing national trend. Universities, especially those that serve more rural students, are slashing majors and departments as inflation climbs and enrollment stays muted. Many of these cuts, as proposed at UNK, are happening in the arts and the humanities.
“One of the things it speaks to is an overemphasis on understanding what the value of a higher education degree is. Evidence demonstrates that humanities and arts have prolific outcomes on student success,” said Vanessa Sansone, a professor of higher education at the University of Texas-San Antonio and director of policy for the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. “These particular degrees are not any less important than STEM-related programs.”
UNK’s draft plan now goes to a faculty advisory committee for review. Administrators will likely hold another campus-wide forum in November, before submitting its budget plan to NU.
It’s already creating much anxiety and anger at UNK. Earlier this month, Rozema organized a student protest against the cuts.
With signs proclaiming “Language fuels understanding” and “The arts changed my life,” dozens of students marched through campus to voice their frustration.
“I’ve never seen this much fear on campus,” said John Bauer, a UNK professor for 17 years in the geography program – another program university leaders are proposing to axe. “I’m not sure what’s next for me or my colleagues.”
The university’s tentative plan is to create a new Department of General Studies to keep teaching certain classes from departments facing cuts. UNK has also said that all students currently enrolled in the programs proposed to be cut would be able to finish out their degrees, but specifics remain scant.
Todd Gottula, UNK’s communications director, cited low enrollment and the low number of students graduating from the selected programs as the reasons for the proposed eliminations. He said the university also considered relevance in today’s job market.
In five years, UNK’s musical theater program has had three graduates. Eleven students graduated with a sports communication major in the same amount of time. Eight students received geography degrees.
“There’s minimum performance standards that we have to have seven or more degrees awarded per year over a five year average in every program on campus,” Gottula said. “None of these degrees are currently meeting that minimum requirement.”
This won’t be the first time UNK has had to make cuts – since 2017, the university has faced $6.5 million in budget reductions, according to annual reports. They have already cut 53 staff positions, dropped men’s tennis, baseball and golf, eliminated philosophy as a major and froze almost all hiring.
This year, the proposed cuts include $3 million in permanent cuts to academic programs.
“We’ve been purposeful in trying not to damage academics,” Gottula said. “But we’re so lean on the staff side and the non-academic, we just really have no other choice right now but to take a look at the academics.”
The NU system’s $58 million shortfall will affect all campuses, said Melissa Lee, chief communication officer for the NU system. Enrollment has dropped at all campuses except the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Decreased enrollment means decreased revenue, at a time when inflation is making it costly to run a university.
Over the past decade, UNK’s enrollment has dropped nearly 1,000 students. The 15% decline is easily the most of any NU campus.
Last year, UNK’s target revenue from tuition was $31 million. The actual revenue: roughly $26.6 million.
“It’s simple math, our expenses are outweighing our expected revenues,” Gottula said.
It’s a problem campuses are seeing nationally, said Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee. And Nebraska has a particular challenge because the state has declining high school populations, meaning smaller crops of in-state students to fill university campuses.
“Even if state funding goes up, it doesn’t make up for lost tuition dollars and rising costs in general,” Kelchen said.
Last legislative session, NU President Ted Carter asked for a 3% increase in state funding – an increase that still would have left the system with a $25 million deficit. The Legislature and governor instead gave a 2.5% increase in funding.
“Our job is to live within those means,” said Kathy Wilmot, NU regent representing Western Nebraska. “Taxpayers do not have a bottomless pit.”
In past deficit years, NU has gone for horizontal cuts, assigning each campus a percentage to trim off their budgets. This year, the Board of Regents has asked for vertical cuts: a system-wide look at finances and possible structural changes like consolidating non-academic departments.
The NU provost is also reviewing academic programs, figuring out what programs are offered by multiple campuses, and figuring out ways campuses could collaborate or consolidate.
“We want to make sure that students can get a great education in the humanities. Does that require us to look more holistically at the University of Nebraska system?” Lee said. “In some cases, yes. Some programs might not need to be offered at all three campuses. These are all questions we’re going to ask.”
Raven Stewart, a senior modern languages student from Ainsworth, chose UNK for its smaller campus. Smaller class sizes, she said, is a big reason many others also choose UNK.
“It’s a lot different going to an institution with 30,000 students than 3,000 students,” Kelchen said. “Especially if you’re from a small town and your high school graduating class may have had 50 students. A big university can be overwhelming.”
When she graduates in May, Stewart plans to take the cultural understanding and critical thinking skills and ethics she’s learned at UNK back home – she’s planning to move back to Ainsworth.
The university’s focus on what the market needs, she said, will decrease the amount of Nebraskans who can do the same.
“I am angry because we seem to be turning everything that celebrates our shared humanity into a business,” Stewart said.
Since early September, Stewart has gathered 38 testimonials from UNK students, faculty, alumni and educators from North Platte to Omaha.
The main fear: That UNK won’t be providing a well-rounded education if the arts and humanities are eliminated. Darin Himmerich, a theater professor, said he worries the cuts will make UNK feel more like a technical school. NU’s own website advertises UNK as a “private school feel” on a state university campus.
“I’m not sure how they can call this a liberal arts college without the arts and humanities,” Himmerich said.
The proposed cuts have killed morale on campus, he said. Colleagues have already begun searching for new jobs.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be caught off guard when they announce this (final budget reductions),” Himmerich said.
Although he can’t argue with UNK’s dropping enrollment, Himmerich said, the cuts will affect more than just the students majoring in these programs. It will hurt students minoring in or taking classes in the axed programs. And it may further harm recruiting.
In one testimonial Stewart collected, a high school senior said they’d be hesitant to attend UNK in the fall if its modern languages department is diminished.
“It gets to a point where if cuts are substantial enough, that students just want to go elsewhere,” Kelchen said.
It’s a balance that Gottula said campus leaders have in mind as they make decisions about cuts.
“We’re honest with ourselves that we know this could create some enrollment challenges that frankly, we don’t want or need right now,” Gottula said. “Enrollment is tough enough.”
But the university system is going to have to make tough decisions in the upcoming years, Lee said.
“Are we concerned that enrollment will decline? It’s not as though these programs are enrolling a lot of students,” Lee said.
UNK isn’t the only university that’s had to cut back on academic offerings in the years since the pandemic. Nationally, other rural-serving and regional schools have had to do the same in the face of financial strains.
In Kansas, Emporia State University recently cut majors like earth science, English, history, political science and foreign languages.
The University of Alaska system cut more than 40 academic programs, including geography and theater.
West Virginia University dropped 28 majors and 143 faculty positions to narrow its $45 million budget shortfall.
And in Pennsylvania, six state universities were merged into two, consolidating programs into a mix of in-person and remote classes.
“Flagships are usually able to protect their programs because there are more students enrolled overall,” Kelchen said. “The rural campuses face challenges because they have a lot of programs that are smaller just because the institution is smaller.”
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, that ability to protect programs has already been demonstrated. In 2020, student outcry led to the campus’s fashion design program being taken off the chopping block. That same year, shifting endowment money saved the university’s dance program.
Consolidating or cutting programs at smaller, rural campuses like UNK could cut off access to academics for those students, Sansone said. In 2018, a study found that 56% of students go to college less than an hour’s drive away from home.
“To default to that assumption, ‘if we have it in one place, they will come,’ that’s not entirely true,” Sansone said. “How are you going to address the additional needs you’ve now created in terms of accessibility and affordability for students who do not live within 50 miles of the campus that you want to have all these degrees at?”
After organizing a protest earlier this month, Laura Rozema continues to advocate for the future of her program and others at risk of being cut.
While she waits for the Faculty Advisory Committee to present its decision, Rozema works to garner support from local businesses and the Kearney Chamber of Commerce.
“Ultimately, it’s not our decision what happens, but what we can do is raise awareness about it,” Rozema said.
The Seacrest Greater Nebraska reporter covers issues across the state of Nebraska. It is named in honor of philanthropist Rhonda Seacrest and her late husband James, who proudly led several Nebraska newspapers through Western Publishing for 40 years.