Disparaging Interpretive Dance (and More)?

Kentucky governor sets off debate -- and nettles some professors -- by suggesting eliminating programs that don't prepare students for good-paying jobs.

September 14, 2017
 
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin

Already a polarizing figure among academics, Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky touched another one of higher education’s third rails Tuesday, saying public universities should consider cutting programs that don’t graduate students who are able to fill high-paying and in-demand jobs.

The remarks come as Bevin, a Republican, has laid out a vision for making Kentucky a center of engineering and manufacturing in the country. He has emphasized apprenticeships and training people for jobs that exist.

“Find entire parts of your campus … that don’t need to be there,” Bevin said in a speech at the Governor’s Conference on Postsecondary Education Trusteeship in Louisville, Ky., the Associated Press reported. “Either physically as programs, degrees that you’re offering, buildings that … shouldn’t be there because you’re maintaining something that’s not an asset of any value, that’s not helping to produce that 21st-century educated work force.”

The remarks set off unhappy chatter among professors at Kentucky’s state universities, who fear the governor is attempting to micromanage higher education institutions while ignoring faculty members’ traditional role over academic decisions. Several worried that the fast-changing job market makes it difficult or impossible to accurately predict which programs will train students for prosperous careers in the future. They argued that diverse program offerings at universities stand the best chance of producing graduates who are able to lead fulfilling lives while bringing flexible skill sets to the workplace.

Bevin’s remarks came as experts debate the severity of the skills gap in the United States. They also come against the backdrop of a Kentucky government that is on track for a $200 million shortfall at the end of its fiscal year in the middle of 2018. His suggestion, the Associated Press reported, was that with the state budget under pressure, some academic programs on college campuses have outlived their need.

Educators should stop supporting the idea that merely going to college is sufficient, Bevin argued. College degrees are not enough for students who are not studying “the right things,” he said. He also delivered a shot at dancers that stoked memories of remarks he made in early 2016, when he said taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the study of French literature.

“If you’re studying interpretive dance, God bless you, but there’s not a lot of jobs right now in America looking for people with that as a skill set,” he said Tuesday.

Kentucky has cut state funding for higher education by more than $200 million since 2008.

Several faculty members found it ironic Wednesday that Bevin was taking aim at specific programs. The governor received his bachelor of arts degree in East Asian studies from Washington and Lee University, they pointed out.

“I think the comments are shortsighted and a bit naïve,” said Lee Blonder, a professor in the University of Kentucky’s college of medicine and one of two faculty members elected to the university’s Board of Trustees. “I think they show a lack of understanding of how innovation, creativity and productivity are nurtured by faculty in an institute of higher education. Not everybody wants to go into a STEM field or engineering.”

Some students have talents in other areas, and they should be able to pursue their passions, Blonder said. Being exposed to liberal education and a wealth of ideas can create unexpected value, she added, pointing to how Steve Jobs drew inspiration for Apple products from a calligraphy class he took at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

Faculty members also want students to lead fulfilling lives, Blonder said. She mentioned a student she taught several years ago who majored in biology and minored in dance. While biology might have opened the door to lucrative career choices, dance helped the student stay fit and was an important part of her life.

Blonder also pushed back against outside forces, even administrators or boards, exercising too much control over curriculum.

“I think the faculty are responsible for the curriculum, and it’s the faculty that need to guide this,” she said. “We have committees that evaluate courses, that evaluate programs. We have a career center.”

Still, in a world of limited resources, there are courses and programs that might qualify as low-hanging fruit for cutting. And entities other than the faculty do exert some control. In public higher education systems across the country, councils or coordinating agencies are constantly reviewing programs.

States also attempt to influence program decisions through funding mechanisms. Take, for instance, Florida, which has built factors like postgraduation employment and programs of strategic emphasis based on economic and work-force needs into its performance-based funding model. This year Kentucky passed its own performance-based funding model, which will tie the amount of money public colleges and universities receive to certain metrics, including how many science, technology, engineering, math and health degrees they award.

Incentivizing some programs is not the same as eliminating programs, however. Cutting a program at a university can be similar to shutting down a military base, said John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky who researches the history of higher education and public policy. It is extremely difficult to do politically, and once a program is closed, a university is unlikely to ever get it back, at least with comparable strength.

Evaluating a program’s effectiveness is no simple task. Giving graduates skills that will help them later in their careers is like hitting a moving target. Someone who received a computer science degree in 1988 but has not updated their skills may not be well-suited for today’s market, Thelin said.

There are other factors to consider. Which undergraduate programs best prepare students to study for an M.B.A. or law degree? Should a program be considered effective if it raises graduates’ earning potential -- even their earnings won’t approach those of an engineer? What programs prepare students for jobs in rural areas versus urban areas?

In light of the complexity, any program review would need to be done well, Thelin said.

“Do it fairly,” Thelin said. “I think there may be some surprises in which you find programs that are effective for the job or labor market and some that aren’t.”

Another key question is whom a program is benefiting financially. Bevin’s track record of comments indicates he sees some liberal arts programs as a financial drain on state coffers. But language programs tend to be less expensive for universities to run than engineering or other science programs, which often require pricey equipment and faculty members drawing high wages.

“I’m not sure the governor’s political point is consistent with the budget reality,” said Nate Johnson, who consults on education policy, affordability, student success and finance and owns Postsecondary Analytics. “The kinds of programs he’s pointing to -- engineering programs, other programs that tend to lead to high-paying jobs in health sciences -- also tend to be more expensive to offer. And so the philosophy major or the French literature major probably isn’t costing the state.”

Some states provide performance funding for STEM programs in large part because they cost more, Johnson said. Some institutions charge higher tuition for expensive programs for the same reason.

That’s not to say Bevin’s argument about considering program closures was without merit, however.

“It is reasonable to ask universities and community colleges to be more thoughtful than sometimes they are about when it’s time to downsize or close programs,” Johnson said. “It’s very easy to open programs and to respond to things that are happening in culture or technology, but they don’t tend to get shut down over time.”

Still, faculty members are leery of the possibility of Bevin micromanaging higher education decisions. Many believe the governor has overstepped his authority in the past, particularly when he overhauled the University of Louisville’s Board of Trustees and engineered the departure of its then president, James Ramsey, last year.

Kentucky’s attorney general has brought Bevin to court over several of his higher ed-related moves, including the Louisville board overhaul and a unilateral decision in 2016 to slash university funding. Kentucky’s Supreme Court ruled that Bevin overstepped his authority on the budget cuts. The state Legislature passed a law this year supporting board changes at Louisville, but the court case in the matter has continued, with oral arguments taking place before the state’s Supreme Court last month.

Bevin has also effectively shifted a free community college scholarship program in Kentucky that would have paid for up to two years of college for high school graduates. Bevin vetoed legislation for the program, then issued an executive order defining scholarship limits. The scholarships are limited to students seeking certificates in areas with worker shortages: health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, business services and internet technology, and construction.

That history has faculty feeling skittish. It is important that universities consider whether their graduates are getting good jobs, said Avery Kolers, a professor of philosophy at Louisville and former president of its chapter of the American Association of University Professors. But that isn’t the only consideration, he said.

“Universities produce public goods both for the students and for the broader community,” Kolers said. “Bevin seems to want to turn universities into training arms for the corporations. Corporations have a duty to train their employees as well, and they have been underinvesting in that for a generation or more.”

Kolers also wondered what would happen if the state’s universities drastically increased the number of engineering graduates hitting the job market. Would more companies flood the state, creating more good-paying jobs? Or would an oversupply of engineers depress wages?

Leaders at Kentucky’s most prominent public universities responded to Bevin’s comments by saying they are boosting the number of students they graduate in high-demand fields. Louisville’s interim president, Greg Postel, told the Associated Press the institution’s engineering program has been growing. But looking for academic programs to cut requires “an awful lot of thought,” he said.

Jay Blanton, a University of Kentucky spokesman, said in a statement that the university has increased its number of graduates in health, science, technology, engineering and math by 22 percent over the last six years. The university continually reviews courses and programs to make sure it positions students with the skills they need to succeed, he said.

“Employers also tell us they need graduates who communicate well, think critically and work well in teams,” Blanton said. “These soft skills are exactly what students learn in majors and classes in English, history, the humanities and fine arts, among others.”

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