Dead Programs Walking

Amid economic downturn, colleges are taking a tough look at program viability and institutional priorities. There's still little consensus, however, about how best to decide which programs are essential.

April 30, 2009

College leaders are often criticized for not making difficult choices, allowing programs that are essentially dead to keep breathing for years with the aid of minimal life support. But with endowment values tumbling and many state budgets slashed, campuses are now making some of those choices – even if they’re still not easy.

As colleges grapple with a veritable menu of Sophie’s choices, essential questions are being raised: What kind of institution are we? What do we truly value, and what are mere luxuries accumulated in headier days? And, in at least one instance of interstate sniping in the South, do we really want to be like Arkansas?

As might be expected, there’s no single answer to these difficult questions. Perhaps more importantly, there’s no agreed-upon strategy for finding the answers. Recent program reviews at Radford University and across the state of Louisiana, for instance, have sparked controversy largely over the process and metrics used for evaluation. Those concerns are heightened in the current economic climate, where pressure to get lean fast is mounting.

Last week, Louisiana’s Board of Regents completed a review of “low completer” programs, a designation based primarily on enrollment and graduation rates. Of the 658 programs classified as "low completers" -- a group that included programs in varied disciplines at both universities and community colleges -- 87 were eliminated. That’s 35 more programs than the regents killed during the last statewide review, which was conducted in 2004.

During program reviews, the regents use differing criteria based on degree level. There is no distinction, however, between disciplines. All doctoral programs, for instance, are expected to have an average of two graduates each year and a minimum of 10 graduates within five years. Gerard Killebrew, the board’s academic affairs associate commissioner, concedes that the regents don’t have a “magic formula” for assessing program quality. That said, Killebrew argues that the yardstick the regents employ is a sound measure of program viability.

The regents do allow for exceptions to their metrics based on state needs. An underperforming undergraduate program in atmospheric science, for instance, was spared at the University of Louisiana-Monroe because it is the state’s only such program. If, however, there’s not a compelling state interest in keeping a struggling program afloat, the regents are increasingly inclined to terminate programs or mandate a fundamental shift, including consolidation, according to Killebrew.

“Either these reviews have some meaning or they don’t,” he said.

The regents have conducted five reviews since 1986 with a loosely followed goal of conducting reviews every five years. While the economic crisis wasn't the sole reason for the most recent review, it certainly informed the regents' decisions, Killebrew said.

LSU Provost: Review “Gives Me Leverage”

The review process in Louisiana allows program chiefs to make a case for maintaining programs, and they often do so by citing the existence of similar programs on the campuses of their aspirational peers. At Louisiana State University, where the regents voted to terminate master’s and doctoral linguistics programs, faculty pleaded with the regents to consider the reputational implications of their actions.

“For LSU to terminate the linguistics graduate programs … would be, in this respect, for LSU to embrace the University of Arkansas as its peer, rather than the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, or UT-Austin,” faculty wrote.

Michael Hegarty, director of the interdepartmental program in linguistics at Louisiana State, said the review process employed by the regents is fundamentally flawed.

“The standard itself I think is crazy,” he said.

The university’s linguistics program has nine master’s students. Given current enrollment numbers, meeting the regents’ standard would require graduating more than half of those students in just under two years, Hegarty said. Another strategy, of course, would be to boost enrollment numbers. Without support for graduate fellowships, however, Hegarty says he doesn’t think the enrollment can be improved.

There is an appeals process available to the university, but Hegarty doesn’t sound hopeful about his program's prospects. Indeed, he suspects that sustaining often-small programs like linguistics is going to be increasingly difficult at a lot of institutions.

“They will survive at places which have huge endowments or places that see themselves as the upholders of intellectual traditions,” Hegarty said. “And places that don’t see themselves in that role will see them as luxuries.”

It’s not uncommon for faculty to question the process of reviews or the criteria by which programs are judged. But even though the regents recommended that eight programs be terminated or consolidated at Louisiana State, Provost Astrid Merget is an advocate of the reviews. While the regents’ process may be perceived as cold and blunt, it provides an external mechanism for judging program viability, bypassing some of the thorny politics of internal reviews, she said.

“It gives me leverage in the sense that [terminating the program] could not be perceived as ‘Oh well, they don’t like the sciences this year or they don’t like the arts,’ ” Merget said.

Radford Process Draws Fire

Radford University officials recently wrapped up an expedited program review that provoked great controversy on campus, drawing complaints from faculty about the short timeline and the metrics used for evaluation. Based in part on state viability standards, the university mandated expedited reviews for 29 programs, five of which were discontinued before the process began. [Updated].

While the reviews did not lead to any program eliminations at Radford, the university’s Board of Visitors reached that conclusion only after a widely reported firestorm gripped the campus. Some faculty argued that the review process violated shared governance procedures, and 65 professors signed a letter expressing “deep dismay” with administrators’ approach.

“Faculty are concerned about the way in which the expedited program review process was conducted, primarily in terms of the lack of time the programs had to prepare responses, but also due to a lack of certainty about the purpose of the expedited review process,” said Stephen Owen, president of Radford’s Faculty Senate president and an associate professor of criminal justice.

Faculty whose programs were flagged for review were given approximately one week to prepare a defense, explaining in no more than five pages why the program fell short of state viability standards like enrollment levels. A review committee, made up of faculty and deans, then took 20 minutes to review each individual response, crafting recommendations on program viability for the provost.

The committee ultimately decided that only one program, Appalachian studies, should be discontinued. But Wil Stanton, the university’s provost, decided amid public outcry to give the program an opportunity to restructure rather than dissolve it altogether.

Much to the chagrin of faculty, the expedited review process was applied in some instances to programs that had within the last year undergone a far more intensive and comprehensive internal review process that is conducted regularly at Radford. Glen Martin, chair of Peace studies, said his program underwent an intensive review last spring, only to be asked to participate in the expedited process this spring.

“I get a letter on Friday and it says by Monday we want a letter from you responding whether or not you’re willing to cut your program, and if not you’ve got five days [to write a defense],” Martin recalled. “How can you evaluate an entire program in a week? It’s a totalitarian procedure that violates even our internal governance documents at Radford University.”

While faculty initially thought the reviews were meant to address a $4.85 million budget shortfall, the university’s provost later noted that the program reviews were not tied to that effort. Stanton said in a Q&A document that “program review is essential to the future of our university,” even though the budget gap had been filled with other strategies.

Stanton declined numerous interview requests made through Radford’s public affairs office.

Florida Programs on Chopping Block

In contrast with those at Radford, program reviews are being couched as a matter of financial necessity at the University of Florida, where budget cuts have been frequent and deep in the last year. The university’s “worst case” budget scenario, which braces for $108 million in reduced state funding, was developed on the premise that each college would cut 10 percent of its budget. That directive prompted deans in four of 16 colleges to suggest cutting eight academic programs.

Among the programs slated for possible closure is the university’s Documentary Institute, which is housed in the College of Journalism and Communications. John Wright, dean of the college, said he evaluated a number of metrics -- enrollment in relation to budget, for instance -- when deciding to close the institute. Wright says he attended multiple open forums to solicit suggestions for dealing with the cuts, but acknowledges there wasn’t a formalized process where common metrics were applied to programs within the college.

“I’m not trying to suggest that this was a decision that was made by the faculty, because ultimately the dean had to do it,” he said. “But there was considerable transparency.”

Cutting the institute, which will result in four faculty layoffs, is expected to generate nearly $362,000 in savings, according to the proposal. The program, which routinely carries about 20 students, is slated to be phased out over a year.

Wright has drawn some critics for cutting a program, instead of spreading the pain more evenly across the college. But Wright said a more egalitarian approach wouldn’t have been strategic, and he was trying to preserve core programs.

“We can’t just go around and take turns laying off faculty members across departments, because that’s not the way to grow and get stronger,” he said.

While Wright characterizes the process he undertook as “transparent,” leaders of the institute would dispute that. Churchill Roberts, co-chair of the program, said he was completely caught off guard by the decision, and was never asked to provide data for any kind of formal review.

“There was no review process at all,” he said.

As the economic crisis forces universities to rethink programs, there are sure to be some with “intrinsic value” that end up cut, according to Jane Wellman, who heads the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. That said, there is surely some good that will come of what university presidents quietly refer to as “barnacle scraping,” she said.

“It’s a positive sign to see institutions addressing this mismatch between demand and capacity, and start to make some very tough decisions about what the priorities have to be,” Wellman said. “I think there is going to be unhappiness with the process that will always be voiced because people don’t like the outcome.”

In the current environment, university leaders need to ask themselves whether programs merely serve to mimic aspirational peers or actually serve some greater good, and that analysis hasn’t always been applied as universities have added more and more programs in recent decades, Wellman said.

“Universities are competing with one another to be excellent, and that means they want to add programs that add to their cachet,” she said. “It’s done to feed a pretty internally defined metric of quality; it’s what the faculty are interested in and keeping up with the Jonses. It’s not what the state or the workforce may need or what we need for economic development. It’s not being driven by research funding.”


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