When it comes time to cut a university's budget, who stands up for the small department that graduates fewer than 10 majors a year? The answer, it turns out, depends on the department.
To help reconcile budget cuts and new policies aimed at producing more graduates prepared for good jobs, the Tennessee Board of Regents on Friday approved a plan by Tennessee State University to eliminate "low producing" programs, notably undergraduate majors in physics and Africana studies. Both programs, along with a bachelor's program in foreign languages, several master's programs, and two education degrees, only graduated a few students each year. The university will go from offering 67 majors to 61, and will consolidate eight schools into seven.
Administrators said the reorganization comes after six months of consultation with faculty, students, and other interest groups, and will save the university $700,000 annually. That will be reallocated to other programs such as nursing, which did not have enough faculty members to meet student demand. Discontinuing the programs will not eliminate courses, no faculty jobs will be eliminated, and both physics and Africana studies will continue to be offered as minors. The only change, administrators say, will be consolidation of administrative units and elimination of the major programs.
While the cuts are typical of those taking place at many colleges these days, critics wonder why a black college would be ending a program producing black scientists or one so closely associated with the institution's identity.
"I believe that as an HBCU we should be graduating students in any field in which they have interest, but I cannot justify keeping a program that only graduates 23 students in 10 years with the resource constraints we have," said Portia Holmes Shields, TSU's interim president, referring to the low number of physics graduates.
While the fates of the Africana studies and physics programs seem similar, outside support for maintaining the majors has come from very different areas. Scientists nationally have rallied to support the physics program and raise the issue of minority science education, while the Africana studies department is mostly receiving support from alumni and local support groups.
The program eliminations come as a result of several policy changes adopted by the Tennessee state legislature during the past few years. Various laws, including the Complete College Tennessee Act  of 2010, changed the formula for funding universities from one based on enrollment to one based on outcomes. That includes graduation rates and the raw number of graduates, so while some of the targeted programs graduate a higher percentage of majors than other departments, their overall numbers are low. The state also restricted remedial programs to community colleges and required universities to show ways that classroom learning connected to future jobs.
Shields said the program eliminations are designed to help the university meet these goals. "It is in the best interest of the students if we eliminate and consolidate programs and used the funds remaining from the consolidation to promote the most successful programs," she said. "In order to get money, we have to graduate students, so we're going to look at the programs that give us the greatest ability to graduate, the ones that are the most highly enrolled, and apply resources to them."
Shields said the mandate to get rid of low-performing programs has been around for 10 years, and that other Tennessee universities have taken similar steps of consolidating or restructuring programs to cope with the requirement. Departments knew that they had to bring up their numbers or face discontinuation. The physics department was singled out for elimination because it had only graduated 23 majors in the last 10 years. Shields said the department only had one rising senior for next year. Orville Bignall, who used to chair the department, said the faculty made efforts to bring students into the department, but faced resource constraints. Because the department couldn't grow its enrollment, it will be folded into the mathematics department and be housed in the school of engineering.
Discontinuation of the physics major has attracted national attention from publications such as Physics Today , the blog of the American Physics Society, and Wired Magazine . Proponents have made two arguments for keeping the department alive. The first is that physics plays a central role in various other science and engineering programs, and that taking away the major will make good instructors less likely to stay at the university.
The other argument is that, comparably, the department is actually one of the largest producers of African-American physics majors. Despite an average graduating class of fewer than three majors, the university still ranks high on the list, said Theodore W. Hodapp, director of education and diversity for the American Physical Society. Historically black colleges and universities produce about half of all African-American physics majors.
Support for the Africana department has been more local, notably in the form of a group called Save TSU Community Coalition. The coalition, which broadly opposes the cuts, takes special fault with cutting the Africana program, which it sees as central to the university's mission as a historically black institution.
"You don't put a cost on freeing someone's mind and promoting intellectuals," wrote William T. Robinson Jr. in a letter in the Nashville Pride. "Some of the most conscious and critical thinking young people I know are products from the Africana Studies Department." He added that he believed a course in Africana studies should be a required for any students at TSU and other black colleges.
Other low-producing programs that survived the current round of cuts, including history, art, chemistry, music, and civil engineering, are currently under review.