Wisconsin Lutheran College last week not only eliminated the jobs of 18 people -- it also ended the teaching of political science.
Many colleges are being forced this year to eliminate positions, but Wisconsin Lutheran's move illustrates a reality for many small institutions: It may be impossible to meet their goals for eliminating slots without also eliminating disciplines.
"The problem about worrying about offering something less than the full array of fields you would find at a research university is a familiar problem for small colleges," said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. "But up until recently, the choices haven't been among fundamentals. Now some of them are among fundamentals. I don't think there's any easy answer."
The college announced the layoffs were due to a $3 million budget shortfall. Of the people who are losing their jobs, five are faculty members and they include both members of the political science department.
"We went line by line through our budget, and we were keeping our budget and what we are about and where we are strategically growing, and we had a matrix of criteria, and we looked at student demand for a major and our mission. It was a combination of many things," said Vicki Hartig, a spokeswoman for the college. The decisions were made by the president and his cabinet, and approved by the college's board. Asked if faculty members were involved in the decisions, she said that the provost is a member of the cabinet and could speak on behalf of faculty interests. Wisconsin Lutheran does not offer tenure.
As for eliminating the teaching of political science, she noted that current majors will be able to take political science at other colleges in the area, at Wisconsin Lutheran's expense. And she said that the college determined it wasn't necessary to its liberal arts mission to offer political science. "We have interdisciplinary majors and other majors that can get you where you are going with your career and aspirations, whether it's law school or whatever after your undergraduate degree," she said.
Ekman of the Council of Independent Colleges said that, in the humanities, many small colleges have already had to limit expectations. He noted that many institutions offer relatively few foreign languages, and that departments like classics and religion -- once considered to be absolutely essential for a liberal arts institution -- are now frequently found in merged departments (philosophy and religion, for example) or not at all. And even within departments that tend to still have free-standing departments, he said, they may not offer coverage in a traditional sense.
"In a typical small college history department, you may have four people, and two are Americanists and two are for everything else," he said. "If you decide you want to teach China and Japan and Korea, what are you giving up? Europe?"
Ekman stressed that there are ways to provide a broad education without departments in every area that was once considered a requirement. But programs based on a core curriculum or interdisciplinary offerings designed to cover various disciplines require careful planning. "If this period of cutting is going to continue for a while, there will need to be fresh thought on how to do that," he said.
Michael Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association, said that the organization tracks 1,000 bachelor's degree awarding institutions, and that about half of them have free-standing political science departments, while one quarter combine political science with another discipline and others have combined social sciences departments. But even in the combined departments, he said, the norm is to have political science courses, generally taught by political scientists or people trained in the discipline. He said he has not heard of colleges recently eliminating instruction entirely in the field.
"It would be thought to be a central component of a liberal arts education," he said. "The subject matter is too central to civic life and understanding where we are going in the world to not offer the content."