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First Things First

October 2, 2012

It can be tough to hear that one can’t truly have it all, but the University of Hartford's faculty members seem to be taking the news well.

It probably helps that the message is coming from other faculty members.

Last week the university announced the recommendations of two task forces charged with evaluating the university’s entire academic and administrative enterprise to prioritize which programs should be maintained, which should be restructured, which need more funding, and which should be cut.

In total, the task force called for cutting some 40 academic programs – from minors in the humanities and arts to the doctorate in educational leadership -- and restructuring another 60 to free up resources to invest in some areas seeing significant growth, including undergraduate degrees in biology, communication, psychology, and nursing, and the M.B.A. The committee recommended no change for most of Hartford’s programs.

While several universities have made headlines since 2008 for cutting programs (see here, here, here, and here), most of those were in reaction to revenue declines – either from endowment losses or cuts to state appropriations. Hartford’s efforts are one of the most comprehensive program prioritizations in recent years. The task force focused on academics reviewed a total of more than 250 academic and administrative programs.

Hartford’s efforts – along with a similar announcement by Emory University a week earlier that it would be cutting some programs in its College of Arts and Sciences to invest in others – could represent a slight shift among colleges in the belief that the way to be a top university is to have a full array of programs. Hartford, Emory, and others have begun to narrow their offerings to improve what they do decide to offer.

Hartford’s consideration of financial viability as an important criterion in which programs to cut and in which to invest also reflects a notion -- much-discussed at this year’s annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers -- that academic decisions can’t be made independent of financial realities. Most non-elite private colleges and universities like Hartford depend on tuition revenue to fund the bulk of their operations, and many on the finance side of higher education argue that universities need to emphasize the programs that will attract and retain students while cutting those that are not essential to a university's mission and that lose revenue.

Hartford President Walter Harrison said the prioritization process will help the university cope with changes in the higher education landscape that could impair the university’s ability to thrive in the future, including decreases in the region’s traditional college-aged demographics and Hartford’s yield, and the rising cost of financial aid. Since 2008, the university's financial aid expenditures have risen from $45 million to $60 million. And while the number of applicants has increased, the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll has dropped 5 percent.

“We are in a sound financial position,” he said, pointing to 15 straight years of finishing the year in the black and reinvesting that money in the institution. “At the same time, we can see where the trend is going.”

The Process

The prioritization process began about two years ago when the university’s new provost, Sharon L. Vasquez, and chief financial officer attended a session put on by the Council of Independent Colleges about program prioritization. Robert C. Dickeson, a former university and foundation president who literally wrote a book on prioritization, led the workshop.

At that session, Dickeson talked about the foolishness of across-the-board cuts – the norm at higher education institutions until a few years ago -- painting it as administrators holding hands and walking “down the road to mediocrity together.” "The price of program bloat for all is impoverishment for each," he said.

Since the recession, several colleges and universities have begun to rethink how they approach budget cuts. In a survey of college and university business officers conducted earlier this year by Inside Higher Ed, 51 percent of respondents said their institutions were discussing “eliminating underperforming academic programs.” Another 41 percent said such talks were not on the table but should be.

After Dickeson’s workshop, Hartford administrators decided that they wanted to embrace Dickeson’s approach and brought in a university finance consultant, Larry Goldstein, to help them through the process.

The administration enlisted two task forces, one of 25 faculty members to evaluate and prioritize academic programs and another group of 20, including both faculty members and administrators, to evaluate administrative programs. In total, the task forces came up with a list of 153 academic programs and 101 administrative programs to evaluate.

Harrison said it was important to him and Vasquez to leave the major decisions to the university’s faculty, so the recommendations did not appear authoritarian. “Not only did we want broader buy-in, but we felt very strongly that we wanted the intelligence of people who are not senior administrators,” he said. Harrison added that he did not know what the task forces were considering until he saw their recommendations.

Each task force also came up with criteria on which they would evaluate their decisions. According to the task forces’ report, the criteria for evaluating academic programs consisted of five metrics: importance to the university (14 percent weight), external and and internal demand (24 percent weight) quality (24 percent weight), income and costs (24 percent weight) and the opportunities and barriers to improvement (14 percent weight).

Based on these criteria, each program head had to submit a report to the committee about how well their programs lined up with these criteria.

This spring and summer, the committees went through the process of prioritizing each program.

Recommendations

The recommendations track with some broader shifts in the higher education landscape. Among those programs recommended for closure are minors in German, health studies, religious studies, and fine arts; bachelor’s degrees in economics, gender studies, international studies, modern languages, rhetoric and professional writing; and several music and performance programs. Several programs on that list, including languages and arts programs, have seen enrollment declines nationwide.

Similarly, the areas slated for investment are programs that for the most part have seen significant growth across the country, including nursing, the M.B.A program, and undergraduate majors in biology and psychology.

Reaction by Hartford faculty to the plan so far has been mixed. Several faculty members who were not involved in the process said they were surprised by the breadth of the recommendations.

“I think the general reaction has been shock because a lot of us had no idea where this was going,” said Nels Highberg, a professor in the department of rhetoric and professional writing who also teaches in the gender studies and cinema department -- three programs slated for either divestment or restructuring. “People suspected some of the things in the report, but there’s a whole lot more than we expected. More’s being expanded than we thought. More is being cut than we thought.”

Harrison said he understands that reaction and that some faculty members might not understand the reasoning behind some of the recommendations. The task force’s report only give a brief description of the task force’s reasoning, such as “With only three full-time faculty devoted to Modern Languages, we recommend clustering the department with another.”

Harrison said the university will spend the next few months discussing the recommendations and whether or not they make sense for the university. He said the university must follow a strict set of procedures to close any department, including getting consent of the Faculty Senate.

The faculty reaction at Hartford, however, has been more subdued than that at Emory, where faculty members and students, particularly those in the affected programs, have questioned the college’s reasoning in targeting specific programs for elimination.

Unlike Hartford, where program recommendations were largely left to faculty representatives, the Emory decisions were made primarily by administrators. In his letter to the college community, Robin Forman, dean of the college of arts and sciences, said he worked with the Faculty Financial Advisory Committee, a group appointed by the Faculty Governance Committee, as well as a handful of other administrators including the dean of the graduate school, the provost, the president, and the board of trustees. “I want to make clear that these decisions were finally made by me,” Forman wrote.

Emory officials declined a request to elaborate on their methods and reasoning for selecting particular programs for closure or investment beyond the letter released by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

 

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