Reorganizing Away the Liberal Arts

Professors fear University of Tulsa abandoning its historic commitment to education beyond job training.

June 6, 2019
 
University of Tulsa

Nationwide, faculty members are fearful of liberal arts programs dwindling away as many colleges and universities shift spending to programs that are seen as linked directly to careers. At the University of Tulsa, some faculty members say their fears are being realized with major alterations and cuts to the university’s academic programs.

In April, Tulsa provost Janet Levit announced a major reorganization of academic departments based on a report from the Provost’s Program Review Committee. This group of faculty members and administrators conducted a nearly nine-month review of the university’s programs. The largest change came in the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences, which the university reorganized from 15 departments and 68 degree programs to three divisions with 36 degree programs.

Many of the faculty members whose jobs would be at highest risk would be contract employees, not tenure track. Programs will be "sunsetted" so students in the majors now will be able to finish them. Levit said TU will "keep its commitment" to resident faculty members, and faculty working in areas cut will be moved to teaching in general curriculum programs or other areas of the university such as the honors programs.

Among the programs cut were majors in philosophy, religion, Russian and Chinese studies, and an M.A. in history. In an interview, Levit said one of the main reasons for the changes was analyzing changing student demand.

“The overarching objective … was to focus and pivot around student success as the core of what the university is about,” Levit. “Objective one of our strategic plan is for us to focus on retention and graduation rates, which frankly look similar to rates at a school like University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University rather than a small private university that attempts to distinguish itself from public schools.”

According to College Scorecard, Tulsa has a graduation rate of 71 percent and an 89 percent first-year retention rate. Levit said the alterations made will allow the university to refocus some resources toward retention programs through a student success center opening this summer, including an academic entry point for all incoming freshmen called "university studies," in the hopes it will decrease retention risks.

Another area greatly affected by the cuts was natural sciences, where 30 degree programs were cut to 15. In the college of business, 27 programs were reduced to 18. The law school reduced by cutting the master's of jurisprudence and master's of law programs. The engineering and health sciences areas at the university remained largely unchanged.

Levit had previously said during a presentation to faculty and staff members that Tulsa had tried for too long to be “everything to everyone” and had spread itself too thin, making part of the strategy to determine what kind of institution Tulsa will be.

However, the decisions have been met with resistance from some members of the faculty who aren't fans of the new direction.

“Tulsa is essentially becoming a sort of pre-professional school,” Tulsa philosophy professor Jacob Howland said. “The writing’s on the wall -- they’re just destroying the liberal arts, natural sciences and humanities at TU.”

Howland has been outspoken in his displeasure with the university’s decisions, and he said students will suffer from a lack of liberal arts on campus.

“You’re not giving students an education that allows them to adapt to changing economic circumstances. You train people for these jobs, and if there’s technological development in five years and suddenly the jobs are gone, what have you done to these kids?”

However, the chair of the review committee, Tracy Manly, an accounting professor, said students have been showing the university which programs had the most vitality simply by deciding which program to take part in, which was one of the paramount factors the university considered in the alterations.

“We didn’t come in with a preconceived philosophy about what this institution was going to be going forward,” Manly said. “Our students are the ones who are telling us why they’re coming to the University of Tulsa and what they’re doing when they’re here. It really became an evidence-driven decision-making process. This was a look at where we’re having success and where we’re having the best metrics.”

At several universities, liberal arts degrees have been put under the microscope, especially in times of increased financial need. At the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, plans to cut liberal arts were initially put into place as a cost-saving measure until backlash from the community led to a reversal. In recent years, the University of Southern Maine, the University of Nebraska, the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of Central Missouri have all seen cuts to liberal arts.

Levit said that while the university has a large endowment, Tulsa is still running an annual deficit, which she said is “not a sustainable business model.” She said while financial factors did not drive the cuts, they were certainly factored in.

Howland, however, expressed frustration that it was unclear the immediate financial impact the changes will have.

“The administration has really been speaking out of both sides of their mouth. Half the time we’re told financial exigency requires becoming a leaner organization,” Howland said. “On the other hand, the provost tells us repeatedly, ‘Don’t worry, we’re a strong organization and we have a $1.1 billion endowment.’ We’ve not been shown the numbers, and we actually don’t know how much is saved by shuttering these programs.”

According to the most recent available financial data, Tulsa had an operating loss of nearly $6.8 million in fiscal year 2018.

Levit said for the majority of programs being cut at Tulsa, the enrollment and graduation numbers in those areas were relatively low. One such program is the theater and musical theater department, where the program’s director, Machele Dill, said there are 20 students. However, Dill said, a number of students from other disciplines take classes or double major in the program.

“This affects everybody on campus,” Dill said. “I have engineering students who are double majors. In our mission statement, it says we’re setting out to educate the entire person. How do you educate them when you’ve cut out the arts like this?”

Levit said training students in the arts is still vital to the university, which is why the university studies program, where all freshman Tulsa students start, will be housed in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Howland still believes the liberal arts and those who teach them are “doomed” at Tulsa after the cuts, however.

“I do think university and college education has been moving farther and farther away from its roots and has suffered degradations,” Howland said. “With changing economic factors, there’s a lot of anxiety to be ready for the work force.”

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