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The Cost of Trimming

February 6, 2006

Can a liberal arts college live up to its name without majors in such fields as physics and mathematics? Can a liberal arts college survive if its enrollment drops?

Those questions -- and a related question of which of those queries is more important -- are at the root of debate over a reorganization plan announced by West Virginia Wesleyan College on Friday. The plan will not, as many have feared, result in the immediate elimination of some departments and the jobs of tenured faculty members. But the plan will:

  • Phase out majors in physics, mathematics (except for programs to train math teachers) and engineering over two years. Students in the programs will be allowed to finish their programs over the next two years and the fate of professors in these departments is unclear after that time.
  • Change the laboratory requirement from two courses to one for bachelor of arts degrees, allowing for the elimination of some adjunct slots in biology.
  • Reduce spending on athletics by 10 percent -- with details to be announced later.
  • Continue an earlier decision to phase out the nursing program.

William R. Haden, president of West Virginia Wesleyan, in a report sent to professors Friday, said that the decisions were "not arrived at easily, nor have their implications been taken lightly." But he said that they reflected a "commitment to strengthening the college for the future."

Late last year, Haden declared that the college was in a state of "financial and enrollment emergency" and outlined a broad series of cuts. He issued the final plan for cuts Friday, after a faculty panel suggested changes in his original plan.

Measuring faculty reaction to the plan is difficult. Most professors who would talk did so only on the condition that they not be identified or quoted directly. There was generally a sense that the plan had improved significantly since proposed cuts were first announced -- and relief that no tenured jobs will be eliminated immediately. But while some felt that the best was being made of a bad situation, others said that they were concerned about the nature of the cuts and the possibility that tenured faculty jobs might well be eliminated down the road.

In an interview Sunday, Haden said it would be "premature and inappropriate" to say if tenured faculty members might lose their jobs in two years, when the majors slated for elimination have been phased out. He said that decisions would be made at that time, based on the need to continue some physics and math for students in other majors, student demand, and other factors. Haden also said that the cuts would allow for increased spending on other science programs, and in business and education programs.

Robert N. Skinner II, director of marketing and communications for the college, said that enrollment has been about 1,300 recently -- about 200 students down from the levels of five years ago, and nearly 500 students down from the college's highest enrollment levels. The declines led officials to project a deficit in the next academic year of $2 million. But Skinner stressed that the college's books are balanced, and that the cuts were designed to prevent the deficit from taking place.

Skinner said that the cuts involved low enrollment programs, and that they left most people at West Virginia Wesleyan feeling "more encouraged about the future of the college."

The college did not declare "financial exigency," which is the term designated by the American Association of University Professors for a budget crisis severe enough to justify removing tenured faculty members from their jobs. But Skinner said that the "emergency" declared by the college was consistent with its faculty handbook.

Joseph Wiest, a professor of physics at the college, said that the cuts are wrong -- and aren't needed. Wiest, who has taught at West Virginia Wesleyan for 32 years, was on the faculty panel that reviewed the president's original plan, and Wiest said that more funds should have been cut from administrative functions to preserve academics.

Physics and mathematics, he said, "are at the core of the liberal arts," adding that "it would be devastating to the curriculum to eliminate them. This college has stood for the liberal arts and sciences from the beginning and it should continue to do so," he said.

Wiest said that he takes little comfort in the president's agreement to let the departments continue for the next two years to help current majors finish their programs. Since new majors will not be admitted, he said, there can't be enough enrollment in two years time to save the programs or professors' jobs.

 

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