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Just a few years after rewriting the rules on program cuts and related faculty layoffs, the University of Wisconsin System is again seeking to limit faculty -- and even institutional -- say in academic matters.

According to a circulating system draft policy on "monitoring degree program productivity," institutions would have just three years to increase enrollment in “low-productivity” programs or be forced to cut them.

The monitoring policy, which is based on less decisive, existing system guidelines on program reviews, bluntly defines low-productivity programs as those that fail to produce at least five bachelor’s degrees per year over five years and three master’s degrees over the same period, on average. Doctoral programs would be monitored based on criteria established by individual institutions.

Again, similar productivity expectations already are in place for program reviews, which are overseen by individual institutions. But the revised administrative policy would require annual monitoring at the system level and speed up the timeline by which “provosts are encouraged to consider alternative solutions to delivering low-degree producing programs.”

Faculty leaders say that the proposal could arbitrarily kill programs that play important in roles in general education, and that it uses a single metric to assess program success.

Wisconsin’s central Office of Academic Programs and Educational Innovation and the Office of Policy Analysis and Research would monitor all programs, submitting data to each institution by the end of August of each year.

Institutions, in turn, could simply decide to eliminate their low-productivity programs by the end of the academic year. But more likely, they could submit to the system a “plan of action to remediate” targeted programs by the end of December -- just four months later. Failure to meet that deadline would trigger the "governance process for program elimination."

Possible remediation actions include:

  • Retaining the curriculum while developing strategies to increase enrollment with additional resources
  • Redesigning the curriculum to make it more “responsive to market demand; more appealing to students,” or combining it with another program or department on campus
  • Changing the delivery model
  • Collaborating with another institution to offer the program

After three years of remediation, institutions must report back to the system about results, the draft policy says. (“Tracking” and communication with the system office would also be required annually.) In the event that a program still failed to meet the standard of five bachelor's or three master's degrees annually, on average, over five years,  “the institution must eliminate the program through its governance process.” A teach-out plan must be provided for any programs with currently enrolled students.

Two types of appeals to are allowed: a one- or two-year extension, with the system assessing the probability that the program will meet its graduation goals; or an appeal based on the idea that a program is “critical to the institution’s mission.”

Appeals must include information, including that about the “quality of the program in the areas of teaching and learning, and the contributions of its faculty in research, creative activity and service.” The system alone assesses these appeals.

A spokesperson for the system initially referred requests for comment to Greg Summers, provost at the Stevens Point campus and architect of its new plan to eliminate 13 programs, including English, history, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish. Via email, Summers said he supported the policy and its inclusion of shared governance and an appeals mechanism. Hesitant to comment in much detail on something that is still in draft form, Summers said that “carefully monitoring program enrollments has always been a fundamental responsibility of the [Wisconsin] system.”

That’s “relatively uncontroversial when enrollments are growing and funding is readily available,” he added, “but it becomes more difficult, obviously, when budgets are tight and demographic pressures have eroded the population of prospective students.” 

Noel Radomski, managing director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at the Madison campus, said the draft monitoring policy comes at a time of intense distrust between campus faculty and staff and system administrators, following changes to tenure and program discontinuance policies over faculty objections, and, a bit later, the controversial transition of state colleges to branch university campuses.

Beyond that, the proposed policy timeline sets faculty members up for failure, he said. A comprehensive program remediation plan would take at least two semesters to design, not one, especially at regional campuses where professors carry heavy teaching loads. Similarly, deciding the fate of a program after just three years is too fast, he said.

“People want to speed things up at universities just like they want to speed things up at a widget factory,” Radomski said. “But that’s like comparing apples to meat loaf.”

Nick Fleisher, associate professor of linguistics at the Milwaukee campus and president of the state conference of the American Association of University Professors, said that the system is proposing to use a “single metric -- the number of graduating majors over five years -- to assess the importance of programs.” No one metric can do that, he said, “and this one is particularly bad,” since “it ignores a program's course enrollments, and it puts smaller campuses at a disadvantage since the same numerical bar is used systemwide. It completely disregards the educational value of the programs themselves. It's a blunt budget-cutting instrument, not an educational policy.”

Calling the policy a “major shared governance problem,” Fleisher said there is “no acceptable automatic trigger for program elimination.” The system should withdraw the draft, he said, encouraging the it to share strategies for program growth and development instead of "seeking ways to shut programs down.”

Bob Atkins, CEO and founder of Gray Associates, a higher education consulting firm, said that “when you start to see across-the-board cuts like this in colleges or in business -- when numerical rules are imposed -- it generally means there’s been a breakdown in communication or trust between the organization and its leadership.”

Noting that he recently worked to help another, unnamed institution cut 80 programs, Atkins said “a healthier process can be done -- and we do it in schools all the time. You sit down with the data and you’re clear that, ‘We gotta cut a bunch of programs.’ But you put that responsibility on the people on the front lines who know what these things are.” (Note: An earlier version of this paragraph contained an erroneous reference to the University of Akron.)

He added, “In our experience, when you ask them to take on that responsibility, they do.”

Beyond shared-governance issues, Atkins said that using an arbitrary number as a trigger for program cuts could have unintended consequences. While some have guessed that the proposal will disproportionately hurt regional campuses, a preliminary analysis by Atkins based on federal data on completions found that Madison would suffer some 70 program cuts and Milwaukee about 30, out of about 120 total program cuts across the system.

Foreign language programs across campuses would suffer, and Atkins suggested that the system would have to designate a center of excellence somewhere -- not necessarily a bad idea, he said. But education, including several science and special education programs, would be cut across Wisconsin, as would numerous programs in ethnic and women's studies. Smaller but potentially valuable science programs would be caught up in the cuts, too, he said, as could programs funded by donors. Moreover, he said, most programs are cost-neutral or cost-generating in terms of instruction, if not overhead.

"You can make some silly mistakes in cutting programs that are attracting students at very little to no cost."

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