iStock/Getty Images Plus
The College of Saint Rose, located in Albany, N.Y., is cutting 16 majors and six master’s degrees, including programs in chemistry, math and music.
The University of Evansville, in Indiana, has proposed eliminating 17 majors and three departments: philosophy and religion, music, and electrical engineering and computer science.
Finally, Marquette University, in Milwaukee, is planning to terminate 225 faculty and staff positions this year.
The three religiously affiliated institutions are just the latest to take a paring knife to their academic programs. An unsparing approach to cuts, administrators have said, is necessary to survive acute financial challenges.
The pandemic, that great enemy of university coffers, certainly did not help the situation. But the true culprit, institutional leaders have said, is demographic changes in the college-going population.
“The demographics and historical lower enrollment numbers throughout the country are pretty much dictating this,” said Marcia White, interim president of Saint Rose. “You have in the Northeast a decline in demographics. You have fewer students of college age going to college. So we’re all competing for those students.”
“When you’re not proactive and you’re not controlling the change that’s happening to you, you have very little control over the result,” she added.
The college draws roughly 30 to 40 percent of its students from upstate New York, said Margaret McLane, interim provost at Saint Rose. This year, total enrollment is down 6 percent.
”At the undergraduate level, we’ve seen most of our loss from first-year and transfer students,” McLane said. The nearly $6 million in academic cuts follows roughly $8 million in administrative slashing. The college’s budget for this academic year is $71 million.
The cuts will affect 10 percent of undergraduates and 33 of the college’s 151 tenured and tenure-track faculty positions will be eliminated.
At Marquette, university officials are using the book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, published in 2018 by Nathan Grawe, as their guide to realignment. Grawe’s book describes declining birth rates within multiple demographic groups, leading to a decline in the demand for higher education. Those changes mean the university needs to plan for a smaller Marquette, officials have said.
“We do not want to build a university on the hope that students will come,” Marquette provost Kimo Ah Yu is quoted as saying in approved Academic Senate meeting minutes.
A recently approved Marquette budget document cuts 225 of the university’s 2,811 faculty and staff, Wisconsin Public Radio reported. Expenses will be cut to the tune of $41 million compared to last fiscal year, and a surplus of $12 million "will provide room for investing in projects of strategic priority,” the document says.
At the University of Evansville, demographics have also been the focus.
“UE is not alone in having to reassess and realign our current academic programs. Colleges and universities across the nation are reimagining higher education and adapting to a world of changing student demand and economics,” President Christopher Pietruszkiewicz wrote in an email to campus. “The plan is designed to respond to the changing demographics in higher education and to ensure financial stability for the University as we build and expand on academic offerings that are expected to grow.”
The plan would eliminate at least 35 faculty positions.
While the humanities have been cut severely across higher ed, STEM and other fields have not been spared in this latest round. In addition to severe cuts to fine arts and music, Saint Rose is terminating majors in chemistry, biology and math, though those departments will not lose any faculty positions. Officials have said enrollment has historically been low in those majors. Saint Rose is also eliminating two majors in business. In 2016, the college cut 23 tenure-line positions, resulting in an investigation from the American Association of University Professors.
Evansville is gutting its department of electrical engineering and computer science, along with its four associated majors.
“It’s pretty much the humanities that are getting clobbered overall [in higher education],” said Bryan Alexander, a senior scholar at Georgetown University and a higher education futurist. “STEM is usually ironclad in comparison, and business is the most popular major in the country.”
But those fields, he said, could suffer if majors are tied to the field of education, as several scrapped math and biology majors at Saint Rose are.
“I’m a humanist by training. My Ph.D. is in English. The decline of the humanities appalls me on a personal level,” he said. “But what I can’t deny is the data. The numbers are just terrible for the humanities.”
Faculty Grief, Concern and Pushback
Faculty members and students at these institutions have expressed feelings of heartbreak, loss and anger.
“It’s extremely sad to lose such a strong program that has such a strong reputation,” said Jessica Loy, a professor of graphic design at Saint Rose who has taught there for 30 years. “I keep experiencing these waves of heartbreak.”
The college is cutting the Center for Art & Design, and all faculty positions will be eliminated by December 2021. Officials have said the process was collaborative with faculty.
Alumni in the graphic design program have gone on to do tremendous work, Loy said, at companies like LEGO, Hallmark and Twitter.
“As the program dissipates, I’d like that to be remembered.”
At Marquette, faculty have pushed back against the plan at many points, on logistical and emotional levels. The American Association of University Professors chapter submitted a resolution to the Academic Senate last week to halt the process, saying it has not been approached in accordance with the Faculty Handbook. Faculty members have accused the administration of poorly managing finances in the past and misinterpreting the data and scope of Grawe’s book. Open letters have been sent from faculty members in STEM departments, the Committee on Research, the Faculty Council and the Jesuit community. (The university is affiliated with the Society of Jesus.)
“At its fundamental level Marquette cannot simply figure out how much money it has and then decide where to spend it. Rather, it must articulate robust values rooted in the history of the Society of Jesus and in Marquette’s own founding documents,” wrote Gregory O’Meara, rector of the Marquette Jesuits. “We understand that some financial realignment is necessary, but our budgetary constraints cannot dilute what a Jesuit education demands.”
At Evansville, faculty members have said the cuts are based on flawed data and analysis.
“The university has not incorporated faculty into this process,” said Daniel Byrne, professor of history at Evansville and secretary-treasurer of the AAUP chapter. “If we had been engaged in the process, we could have warned them about some of the stupid stuff they did.”
Data in the analysis that led to the proposal counted high school students in dual enrollment programs into department numbers, Byrne said. The university didn’t offer proper analysis around second majors, disadvantaging programs like Spanish, a popular second major for students in health sciences at Evansville. Computer science and electrical engineering have had strong enrollment and are still being cut, Byrne said.
The faculty voted no confidence in the administration in October.
“The effort to cut $3.5 million out of the budget should have been first looking at ancillaries before you got to academics,” Byrne said. “But [Pietruszkiewicz] went to academics first.”
The proposal to cut the philosophy and religion program has drawn questions about commitment to the university’s Methodist mission statement, Byrne said.
Among all there is a concern about what higher education is aiming to be, and what values it is communicating.
“A lot of students are really upset. A lot of students feel that the college has completely turned their back on them,” said Doris McKinney, a senior in music education at Saint Rose who started a petition to try to save the music program. The college is cutting three majors in the music department, leaving only the music industry major, its most popular program.
“There are so many students who have given their lives to this program,” she said. “For it to just be ripped away from them is horrible.”
Officials at Saint Rose have said that cuts are not meant to be a commentary on the nonfinancial value of the programs or faculty. But not everyone sees it that way.
“Imagine a world without the arts,” McKinney said. “I don’t think that is a world I’d ever want to live in.”