Earlier this summer the U.S. government faced default and had its credit rating downgraded, convincing almost everyone that we have been living beyond our means — everyone, that is, except many educators. Even those who have been furloughed or had programs cut and workload increased typically blame the economy, the legislature or a political party. This article is about none of that. It’s about the system.
It’s time to smell the Starbucks and abandon the status quo that has cost colleagues their jobs, parents their bank accounts and students their future.
A glimpse of the past: Almost every institution embraced the core value of excellence — sometimes deservedly, sometimes not. But the real guiding principle for decades now has been growth, perhaps instilled in us by the federal government that funds so many of our operations, stimulates our budgets and underwrites tuition with grants and loans.
Inside the institution, the concept of growth is elephantine. Course catalogues are going entirely online not because of convenience but because of the cost of printing the ever-expanding content. Sequences aspire to departments, departments to schools, schools to colleges and branch campuses to free-standing universities.
To reform the institution so that it lives within its means, we will need courageous administrators and cooperative professors. They don’t have to reinvent the academic wheel; they just have to steer it in a more fiscally sound direction.
Here are 12 examples of common practices that inflate tuition, bloat payroll and persist during challenging economic times with a dozen proposals to nullify the status quo so that institutions may operate more efficiently and effectively in academic year 2012, trimming budgets, managing workload, and enhancing student retention and graduation rates.
1. Acknowledge curricular glut.
Status Quo: Create new courses and propose new degrees without removing existing ones from catalogues or dealing with duplication, being oblivious to how this growth affects professorial workload, student tuition and graduation rates.
Solution: Remind faculty members that curricular streamlining decreases workload, frees more time for research to meet promotion and tenure requirements, and allows more one-on-one advising to help student retention. After the reminder, mandate a curricular review to discern which units keep adding to the catalogue, creating sequences and tracks, increasing degree requirements or otherwise inflating pedagogies. Those units should cut excess curricula within one year or risk losing positions or having their budgets cut accordingly so as to force streamlining.
2. Stop program duplication.
Status Quo: Approve courses in digital communication, popular culture and multimedia offered by multiple departments so as to attract non-major enrollment and generate credit hours. Endorse degrees with narrow subject matters, such as “environmental chemistry,” believing that every unit should determine its curricula and partake in innovation and specialization.
Solution: Require each academic unit to create a “Program Responsibility Statement,” specifying curricular and pedagogical areas so as to prevent program overlap. Example: “Journalism and communication produces content across media platforms (digital, print, visual, broadcast, advertising, public relations, science communication, etc.) targeting audience and preparing students to produce work for hire.” Such a document should outline what pedagogical areas fall under the umbrella of each unit, thereby informing curriculum committees so that courses already in the catalogue by one unit are not duplicated by another.
3. Demand curricular reform.
Status Quo: Approve new courses based on pedagogical arguments rather than on available resources and allow senior professors to continue teaching outdated topics such as "Darkroom Photography" or "Mechanical Drawing." Permit teaching centers to advocate for the latest technology without assessing effectiveness or cost, encouraging professors to create courses for each new application or device in the untested belief that technology engages students. Propose new or experimental courses for timely topics often based on fads and trends hyping but not delivering innovation.
Solution: Verify that a new course proposal does not duplicate an existing class and that sufficient resources are available to schedule it on a regular basis. Evaluate the cost of technology such as clickers and determine whether it actually enhances learning by assessing outcomes empirically. Introduce new applications and technologies into existing courses, rather than create new or experimental ones that may be outdated in a few years (Second Life) or commonplace (Facebook). Use the rubrics of seminars, workshops and independent studies for timely topics, rather than propose new or experimental courses that need to be scheduled and staffed on a regular basis.
4. Use the teaching budget for teaching.
Status Quo: Request funds from deans when faculty or staff vacancies occur to be deposited in a unit’s supplemental budget and then use part of those funds for travel and professional development rather than for instruction.
Solution: Raise benefactor money for travel and professional development. Don’t use supplemental budget for those purposes because that impedes student degree progress and adds to faculty workload in as much as more courses need to be staffed. Enforcing this is how deans and provosts earn their pay, sanctioning spending policies that foster student degree progress. Ignoring this means administrators have to come up with “bridge money” so that units can still operate from one semester to the next.
5. Revise budget models.
Status Quo: Endorse resource management models that typically overlook streamlined units whose pedagogies ensure timely graduation rates. Overemphasize student credit hours rather than number of majors, providing cover for small departments with few majors that use adjuncts or graduate assistants to teach general education while professors specialize in arcane topics.
Solution: Revise budget models to recognize timely graduation or establish a provost-level mechanism to reward programs with high four-year rates. Invest in units qualifying as destination majors, attracting high school students. Without majors of the largest programs, small departments specializing in general education would have fewer students generating those credit hours.
6. Change hiring, and promotion and tenure policies.
Status Quo: Use adjuncts or teaching assistants in introductory courses such as composition or beginning math so that senior professors can teach specialties within their degrees. Recruit hires on the promise they can develop their own courses based on narrow research topics and reward continuing professors in Promotion and Tenure for new course creation.
Solution: Hire adjuncts only when faculty members lack experience or expertise in a subject and assign your best professors to teach large introductory classes so they can recruit new majors to your program. Require new hires to teach within the current curriculum and revisit P&T policies, recognizing innovation within existing pedagogies.
7. Restrict non-major enrollment.
Status Quo: Allow students minoring in your discipline to take core or skills classes and other units to require those courses in their own degree programs, effectively creating substandard portfolios or faux expertise in a discipline.
Solution: Funnel non-majors into large introductory and concept classes, preventing them from claiming seats in small required courses so as to safeguard degree progress for your majors and reduce the number of sections being offered each term.
8. Simplify degree requirements.
Status Quo: Keep adding courses to the degree program and increasing the number of hours needed to graduate even though the institution may only require a dozen fewer credits for a diploma. Require pre-requisites for 200- and 300-level courses by adding prefixes and suffixes, such as “Beginning,” “Intermediate” and “Advanced” Economics or Biology “I, II, and III”—often artifacts of an institution that switched in the past from quarters to semesters but also didn’t reduce curricula for the longer academic term.
Solution: Decrease the number of credits needed for the degree and create a curriculum with basic components: cornerstone courses that build a foundation, core courses that expand on that foundation, and capstone courses that prepare students for the workplace or graduate study. Reduce the number of prerequisites for electives and eliminate “intermediate” levels, thereby creating rigor. This ensures that courses have sufficient enrollment and allows for classes to be scheduled in periodic rotation rather than each semester.
9. Eliminate silos.
Status Quo: Create non-official degrees by building curricula around sequences, emphases, options and tracks. This adds to workload in addition to slowing graduation rates because required courses often must be taken in sequence.
Solution: Eliminate the silos of sequences, emphases, options and tracks. If it’s not on the degree, don’t build curricula around it. Revamp courses so as to include components of former silos. For instance, in media classes, require each course to address print, broadcast and Internet rather than build classes around each platform.
10. Require faculty advising.
Status Quo: Hire academic advisers and allow professors to shirk responsibility for knowing the curricula, keeping office hours and meeting with students one-on-one. Allow the institution to handle new student orientation rather than deal with high school students making the transition to college life.
Solution: Require professors to do academic advising, spending more face time rather than Facebook time with students so as to ensure a good retention rate and timely graduation. Professors who resist can teach an additional class. Schedule an orientation workshop for transfer and first-year students, requiring undergraduate plans of study before the sophomore year. This increases four-year graduation rates and gives students a sense of destination.
Status Quo: Allow departments with few majors to hire staff, appoint administrators, use credit cards and add courses to the catalogue to earn a degree for which there is neither need nor demand. Retain professors not by paying them the salary that they deserve but by offering them directorships in institutes and centers that fail to win grants and serve only as pricey showcases for popular causes or scientific trends. Maintain the institution’s archaic organizational structure at all costs.
Solution: Consolidate small programs into departments or schools of humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Professors can teach general education to other majors with the emphasis on critical thinking and interdisciplinary learning in a multicultural world. Terminate institutes and grants that fail to produce results.
12. Cut administration.
Status Quo: Mandate institutional change only at the professorial level and maintain the same number administrators, especially at the college level.
Solution: New operations cannot run on old administrative engines. Limit associate deanships to three per college: budget, curriculum and research.
The status quo may have worked or even benefitted students in better economic times. But those times have ended and a new era of fiscal responsibility has begun. If budgets improve, methods to streamline should not cease because the new challenge then will be reducing student tuition.