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MADISON - Funding challenges and declining enrollment may force university officials to drop some programs and consolidate others at the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).

Dean Kate VandenBosch outlined the organizational redesign path in a news release issued on April 6.

“The students and their families paying tuition want to know that they are getting an excellent education, and we at the UW-Madison CALS want to exceed their expectations,” VandenBosch said. “To that end, CALS has embarked on an Organizational Redesign effort to optimize the structures of the college.

“That means we need to ensure that our resources are being directed where they can have the greatest impact on the most students,” she added.

Because resources are tight, VandenBosch says CALS will likely stop offering some programs that are serving small audiences.

"If you look at some of our programs that have some overlap in content — horticulture, agronomy, plant pathology — we have a lot of options for students who are interested in plants and cropping systems and related topics," VandenBosch explained. "(Enrollment) will go up and down, but collectively they are all in the 80-100 student range. I think many institutions don't really have higher enrollment in those programs so that's one area we may think of consolidating."

CALS currently offers 23 undergraduate majors ranging from Agricultural Business Management to Wildlife Ecology. Four majors — biochemistry, environmental science, microbiology and biology — are shared with the College of Letters & Science and tend to have larger and increasing enrollment numbers.

VandenBosch shared enrollment trends of each major for the past five years. Majors seeing decreased enrollment numbers for the 2017-18 school year include: agronomy, food science, landscape architecture, life sciences communication, nutritional sciences, plant pathology, soil science and wildlife ecology.

Majors with enrollments of 25 or less students include: entomology (15); horticulture (17); poultry science (3) and soil science (5).

VandenBosch says the number of students needed to make any one program financially feasible isn't a "hard and fast number" because the functions of departments, which host the majors are varied, may have more than one major or may be engaged in research and outreach activities.

"In general, we're more concerned about the ones that are serving very low numbers," she said. "Soil science has diminished more over the last couple of years, probably in part because we have a very successful environmental science program that also covers some aspects of soils and that's taken off in the last several years."

In order to ensure a robust college for the future, VandenBosch says CALS needs to strategically increase its enrollments in cost effective ways. Those may include examining administrative structures and exploring new collaborations and partnerships, which are key to sharing the workload.

“For example, a department with a larger faculty has more people to fulfill obligatory committee responsibilities, while smaller departments have the same responsibilities shared among fewer faculty, such that service commitments increasingly compete for their vital time for teaching, research and engagement with industry partners,” she explained.

VandenBosch says discussion on options for redesigning the departmental structures and academic programs within the college have commenced.

“This will be a deliberative process with no immediate changes,” she said.

During the spring and into the summer, VandenBosch will be talking with department chairs and faculty and staff about partnerships within CALS that will increase efficiencies and return the most on our investments.

In the fall, these discussions will lead to specific plans for newly merged departments or departments working together in collaborative relationships with shared decision-making. 

“I also anticipate specific plans to offer fewer academic majors while creating more options for students within existing majors,” she said.

For example, one potential option that has been discussed pertains to the soil science major.

"We've had fewer numbers of enrolled students recently, but obviously learning about soil and soil conservation is critical to agriculture, so we want to make sure that the courses that students would take continue to be available to students, for example in the plant and crop sciences or in the environmental sciences," VandenBosch said. "Or it may be that we decide to make soil science an option within one of those, so students can have that concentration."

Implementation of any specific plans will begin during the 2019-20 academic year and will likely continue into the following year.

“In addition to improving the student experience, it is our belief that these changes will help strengthen our relationships with industry partners, which are extremely valuable to the college,” she said.

VandenBosch says discussions at home about the future of farming amidst low prices and tight margins may force potential students to take a harder look at their career options in agriculture.

"What we mostly see from the 18-year-olds that are entering the programs is what piques their interest, where do they think they can make an impact, and also what are the job opportunities," she said. "We do have fewer farm families, so perhaps part of the decline (enrollment) is numbers who are coming from a traditional agricultural background and so we feel it's important to be recruiting students from all over and from families within all walks of life because there is a critical need for this kind of talent in the short term, and going on into the future too."

Carol Spaeth-Bauer also contributed to this report.

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