Cut to the Core

University that locked out its faculty in the fall is now telling professors they must shrink the core curriculum within a year and make do without majors such as philosophy and math.

April 3, 2017
 
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Students protest Long Island U faculty lockout in September.

Even the best-laid curricula can go awry, or at least get stale. So colleges and universities review and revise their cores or general-education programs with some regularity. And that’s what professors at Long Island University's two major campuses had agreed to do in recent years.

Then things went off course with the unprecedented faculty lockout at LIU’s Brooklyn campus in September over union contract issues. Faculty-administrative relations, already tense, took a nosedive, and curricular revisions took a backseat.

Now, in another blow to faculty morale and shared governance, professors say, the university’s Board of Trustees has imposed a credit cap and timeline for the typically faculty-driven curricular review process at both the Brooklyn and C.W. Post campuses. That’s after the university allegedly unilaterally cut or suspended dozens of degrees for this coming fall. On the Brooklyn campus, for example, math, philosophy, economics, visual arts and sociology-anthropology, among other majors, have been "stayed" until further notice.

As for the core, the university says discussions are ongoing and nothing’s set in stone. But faculty leaders who’ve attended board, curricular committee and other meetings say otherwise.

“The faculty acutely recognizes that the core curriculum needs to be updated and potentially trimmed," said Rebecca States, professor of physical therapy at Brooklyn and president of its Faculty Senate, noting that her campus voted last year to revise its core. "But it’s very distressing to have a mandate put upon us saying exactly what numbers it has to be trimmed to -- and that the reasons for doing this have more to do with market competitiveness. They’re looking at peer institutions that all have the same number of credits in the core and saying, ‘Wow, we need to have smaller cores.’”

Currently, both LIU campuses have relatively large undergraduate cores. Brooklyn’s general core is at least 51 credits of a bachelor's degree, including an English seminar, six credits of foreign language and course work across the liberal arts. Post’s standard core is 39 to 45 credits in course work that develops 10 skill areas, from written communication to ethical reasoning to technological competency.

Most of LIU’s competitor institutions, meanwhile, have core curricula or general-education programs that are about 30 to 33 credits. Examples include the State University of New York campuses (30) and Hofstra University (33).

Unsurprisingly, then, perhaps, faculty members say LIU’s board recently told both campuses to revise their cores to 30 to 33 credits. Again, professors had already agreed to review their curricula. Yet those opposed to the board’s directive say that the process should be faculty driven, and that any credit cap should be based on academics -- not merely what peer institutions are doing.

Another problem is the timeline. Faculty members say they’ve been told the new core has to be in place by 2018, and even possibly by this fall at the Post campus. While 2018 is pushing it, fall 2017 is reckless, they say, as revising the core means thoughtful collaboration across disciplines and in some cases creating new courses.

“It’s impossible,” said Deborah Mutnick, a professor of English at Brooklyn who asked to join an appointed campus committee considering revisions to the core. “Not to mention the fact that classes are forming already for fall 2017. It would be incredibly chaotic.”

One professor at the Post campus who did not want to be identified by name said via email, "We have been told that if we do not produce this new, even more reduced core by fall, the [board] may do the job themselves -- i.e., produce their own cut core. ...Needless to say, we are all scrambling at this point."

There's been no formal, direct communication between the board or administration and the faculty as a whole regarding changes to the core. But some of the 2017 rumors are based on an email sent last week to liberal arts departments at the Post campus by John Lutz, chair of English and co-chair of the Outcomes Assessment Steering Committee.

“I learned that the [board] was moving up the timeline and wanted the new core in place by fall 2017,” he wrote. “I was called into another meeting [where] this was confirmed. … Although the board has no real interest in the disciplines represented, I listened to them discuss some disciplines at the board meeting in January, and I’m persuaded that if we don’t respond proactively and pragmatically, they may just decide to eliminate some of our disciplines without our input. And our core will be 30 credits.”

Lutz declined an interview request but told Inside Higher Ed via email that the timeline is still being discussed and he had nothing “definitive” to share.

“Post campus has been undergoing an effort of core revision for the past several years, and I’ve been personally leading that effort,” he added. “We’ve made significant changes to our core curriculum already and integrated best practices such as first-year seminars and learning communities. We’re hoping to continue with this process with a timeline that enables us produce something with intellectual rigor and integrity that will be beneficial to our students.”

If professors want their core revisions to be based on “intellectual rigor and integrity,” why does the board seem set on cores reflective of competitor institutions? Enrollments tell a certain story. Based on internal data obtained by Inside Higher Ed, freshman enrollments have been declining in recent years, from 886 in 2012 to 514 in 2016 at Post, and from 904 to 715 at Brooklyn over the same period. The number of incoming freshmen at Brooklyn dropped from 818 in 2015 to 715 in 2016 alone.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that sharp decline happened the same semester the Brooklyn faculty was locked out for 12 days at the start of classes. President Kimberly Cline later faced faculty votes of no confidence, and the union contract issue remains unresolved in the long term. So that the university appears to be looking to academics to fix what is almost certainly also a public relations problem is not lost on professors.

“It’s certainly ironic,” Mutnick said, attributing another chunk of the problem to rising tuition at private institutions like hers across the country. But instead of addressing the unsustainable financials of higher education, she said, LIU, at least, is seeking academic “expediency” to get students through their degrees faster.

Such arguments recall nationwide debates about the role of a college education and whether it should prepare one for a career and lifetime of learning, or for a first job -- or both. But is there also an administrative case for the kind of expediency that undercuts typical shared governance processes?

Jeffrey Kane, senior vice president for academic affairs across LIU campuses, said the university -- including the faculty -- has been working for 18 months to develop its “first ever long-term strategic plan and institutional effectiveness strategy.” A central finding was that the university needs to review and revise its core curricula, he added via email.

“At one campus, the core curriculum has not changed in nearly 20 years, with the last revision taking 13 years to design,” he said. So in order “to move the institution forward, the [board] directed the university’s academic leadership to work with faculty to put forward improved cores that would better serve students, be more in line with peer institutions and provide educational flexibility for students, while maintaining a strong liberal arts foundation.”

“In today’s rapidly evolving higher education landscape,” Kane said, “revisions like this need to be timely. … Everyone remains welcome to come to the table and engage in a transparent process designed to ensure that we have programs that are best for our students and allow them to graduate on time with a thoroughgoing education for a purposeful life.”

For some, however, the move seems like one more undercutting of the faculty role on campus. States, the Brooklyn Faculty Senate president, noted this academic year already has brought unilateral changes to academic programs. While some programs do have low enrollments or numbers of majors, States said, faculty members should be the ones to consider such questions as "What is a liberal arts college without a math major?"

Hildi Hendrickson, chair of sociology-anthropology at the Brooklyn campus, recently resigned as University Faculty Senate president over what she in her resignation letter to administrators called the "empty charade" of shared governance at LIU. As for the fate of her department's major, Hendrickson said she's been told each program will be consulted about its "particular situation," but that's it's "not clear what you need to do to have a shot at keeping your major running." It's just "the latest twist in a year full of demoralizing and infuriating events," she added.

Asked about faculty morale, States laughed, sighed and said, "For a long time, we still thought we had some authority with regard to the curriculum, but this spring has destroyed that belief. … Morale is terrible."

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