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Cruel Irony

August 14, 2009

Amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the University of Southern Mississippi is poised to eliminate -- of all things -- its economics department, faculty were informed this week.

The elimination of economics, along with five tenured and four tenure-track faculty positions, is part of a plan to reduce spending by $11 to $12 million, universitywide, within a year. While university officials stress the plan isn't yet final, they are slated to decide by September 1 whether to go forward with the proposed cuts, according to a news release. Tenured and tenure-track faculty are legally required to a year's notice prior to termination, and economics faculty say they've already received such notice.

The proposal was crafted by a provost-led committee, which also included faculty. The committee’s proposal recommends 12 tenured or tenure-track positions be cut across the university, and three quarters of those will come from economics.

George Carter, a professor of economics at Southern Mississippi, sent a letter to colleagues proclaiming that “USM will stand alone as a major university without an economics faculty.” He went further, attesting that “due process has been denied” to economics professors who were unrepresented on the budget committee and kept in the dark about its deliberations throughout the process.

Much of the justification for eliminating the economics department was tied to student demand. An outline of the plan drafted by the committee notes that the program has “less than five graduates per year,” but that number is in dispute. Until recently, the department housed the university’s international business program, which produced 17 graduates in 2007-8. If those graduates were added to the total, economics would have produced 20 graduates that year.

Even with the international business graduates included, however, economics trails all other departments in the college in the number of degrees awarded. The highest degree producer in 2007-8 was Management and Marketing, which had 293 graduates. The second-lowest was Tourism and Management, which had 29 graduates -- nine more than economics, even with international business included in the tally.

While faculty in the department acknowledge the need to boost degree numbers in core economics programs, they note that the economics courses they teach support many other majors.

“We actually have, I believe, the highest student credit hours per [full-time equivalent faculty member] in the College of Business, and maybe one of the highest at the university," said Mark Klinedinst, a professor in the department. "[Administrators] were constantly complaining 'Oh, we're overstaffed.' How can we be overstaffed if we teach one of the heavier course loads at the college and the university?"

Southern Mississippi did not provide universitywide data on teaching loads requested by Inside Higher Ed, but the teaching loads economics faculty carry are actually relatively close to two of the four other departments within the college, according to data provided by the faculty and Lance Nail, dean of the college. About 275 credit hours were produced by each full-time equivalent economics faculty member in 2007-8, according to slightly differing data supplied by both the dean and faculty. That ratio is similar to the load carried by the Department of Accountancy and Information Systems -- 310 credit hours per FTE -- and Management and Marketing -- 307 per FTE, Nail's data show.

To Nail, the credit hour data illustrate that faculty in other departments are producing just as many credit hours, while also producing more degrees than economics.

"So, ECON was right in line with Accounting, Management, and Marketing for [Credit Hour Production]/FTE -- three degree programs that produced over 300 graduates last year compared to 3 for ECON," Nail wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

Dean's Process Criticized

Economics faculty are still smarting that the international business program was moved to another department, but their primary complaint is about the process by which that change took place. The move was part of an overall redesign proposed by Nail, who went ahead with the plan over the objections of the university’s Academic Council, December meeting minutes indicate. While the council acknowledged that it did not have governing authority over the redesign, it nonetheless voted against the proposal in a symbolic gesture. The Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, however, endorsed the redesign, and it went forward.

"There have been a number of issues where we thought appropriate policies were not being followed," said Klinedinst, president of the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Southern Mississippi can’t simply stop teaching economics, but by eliminating tenured faculty it can lean on more adjunct professors and deliver the courses at a lower cost, according to Klinedinst. Klinedinst speculates that the new model will not only be a disservice to students, but also provoke a response from the accreditors of both the university and the College of Business.

“I’m just sort of baffled,” he said. “It seems to me similar to not having an English Department or a biology department. Here we are in the worst economic mess in 70 years, and to not give our students a chance to understand their own personal economic situation -- their finances -- and understand what some of the remedies are that are being talked about by the president and Congress and state legislators, I think is a shame.

“You can’t bring in people [to teach] who don’t have the educational backing and expect quality results. I think we’re going to be in trouble with accreditors -- with [the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools], with [the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business]. I think we as a university could be facing serious accreditation problems.”

While Nail says he's "very pained" to contemplate the demise of the department, he does not agree that the college can't deliver relevant information to students about economics through other business courses.

"There seems to be an assumption that economic theory is not revisited and built upon in higher level business courses and this is inaccurate," Nail wrote in an e-mail. "In all of our disciplines we would build upon the principles of economics in an applied fashion oriented towards business.... The loss of the Economics degree does not minimize the critical nature of economics principles in business decision processes."

 

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