What’s Wrong With the Proposal to Eliminate 'Small Majors'

The University of Wisconsin System should consider much better strategies for reducing costs and enhancing revenue, argues Benjamin Rifkin.

November 28, 2018
 
 
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As a former faculty member at the University of Wisconsin Madison who collaborated in a systemwide initiative in that state, I find a proposal from the university system to monitor degree program “productivity” and eliminate programs that confer few degrees just plain wrong on many counts. Pursuing such actions in Wisconsin -- and other states, if they follow suit -- would have numerous deleterious effects. If adopted, the proposal would:

Reduce revenue and increase expenses. The “small majors” that the proposal targets for elimination are largely those with low costs: humanities courses taught by faculty members with the lowest salaries across the country -- compared with faculty in the natural sciences, for example. Such disciplines often have no laboratories or start-up costs for new hires. In fact, at many institutions, well-enrolled courses in the humanities subsidize high-cost programs in the natural sciences.

Eliminating the targeted majors will probably cause full-time faculty members in those disciplines to depart, which means part-time or adjunct instructors will have to teach the courses required for general education. In some Wisconsin campuses, it is difficult to find qualified part-time faculty willing to work for part-time wages without health insurance and other benefits. And across the system, even in places such as Milwaukee and Madison, where it might be possible to find qualified part-time faculty, they are not paid to provide institutional service. The service burdens will then, of course, shift to the remaining full-time faculty members, who will balk at providing this additional service without additional compensation. That compensation will wind up costing institutions and the system more money.

The lack of majors in those lower-enrolled programs could also tend to drive many students away from the smaller four-year campuses toward the larger institutions in the system. Yet those institutions are ill equipped to handle greater numbers of students, as they lack sufficient faculty members, classroom space, dormitory rooms, financial aid counselors, disability services counselors, mental health counselors and other staff members. That will increase costs for the entire system, as some campuses, especially in Madison and Milwaukee, will require many more resources to meet the needs of more students who, all other things being equal, might actually prefer to stay closer to their own homes in other regions of the state.

Undermine the state economy. The economy of the state of Wisconsin, just like that of other states, increasingly depends on producing greater numbers of knowledge-based workers in an ever-shrinking industrial economy. As more and more jobs are automated, the Wisconsin economy will depend more and more on jobs that require the intellectual skills of critical reasoning and analysis, creative problem solving, successful communication in speech and writing, and intercultural competence -- the learning outcomes of the very majors that the proposal would eliminate.

Furthermore, foreign language programs would be among the programs in the crosshairs of this proposal. Wisconsin exports over $22 billion worth of goods per year: after Canada, the most significant export destinations for Wisconsin businesses are Mexico, China, Saudi Arabia and Japan. The elimination of majors in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese at some University of Wisconsin System campuses, a step not hard to imagine given recent announcements from UW Stevens Point, would deprive Wisconsin businesses of a supply of intercultural experts to help inform the shaping of trade relations.

Work against the interests of American national security. The University of Wisconsin System has an extraordinarily successful infrastructure for the collaborative delivery of instruction in less commonly taught languages, making it possible for students at many campuses to study Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Russian, among other languages, without incurring the expenses of running majors in each of these languages on each campus. In addition, Madison offers a panoply of programs in less commonly taught languages, including Farsi, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Swahili and Urdu, all of which are vital to national security. If institutions have to eliminate programs in those critically important languages, our national security apparatus will have to train employees from scratch, to the detriment of American national security.

Fly in the face of data. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently released results of an expansive research project examining the needs of American employers. It demonstrates that employers around the country, and, therefore, also in Wisconsin, seek to hire and promote individuals with liberal arts degrees, including degrees in the humanities.

Demonstrate a lack of respect for institutional faculty members and administrators. The very nature of this proposal implies that a one-size-fits-all approach to eliminating academic programs would be more successful in reducing costs than a more nuanced one, delivered through systems of shared governance that exist on University of Wisconsin System campus, to analyze revenue and expenses and take steps to reduce expenses and enhance revenues. Working together, faculty and staff members at each system campus could be charged with the responsibility of developing proposals that would better reflect the needs of the individual institution. That would be far more effective than using a blunt instrument, or cudgel, to eliminate a series of programs in a cookie-cutter approach.

Break faith with the people of Wisconsin, as the proposal is antithetical to the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea is an important tradition that inspires and guides all the faculty and staff members of the public institutions of higher education in Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Idea, colleges and universities support teaching, learning and research that improve the lives of people beyond the boundaries of the campus. The humanities programs that would likely be closed should this new policy be adopted are precisely those that train students to apply critical analysis to social problems. When campuses anywhere consider eliminating majors in history, philosophy and the languages and cultures of people in our own and other societies, students will lose the opportunity to study, analyze and understand important political, social, cultural and economic challenges in their state or region, in the country, and across the planet more generally.

There are much better strategies for reducing costs and enhancing revenue that are consistent with the Wisconsin Idea, as well as with the values and aspirations of people in any state -- strategies that will help grow the economy of any state (including Wisconsin) and also meet American national security interests. Instead of using a blunt instrument, the leadership of the University of Wisconsin System -- and, indeed, of any American college or university facing financial challenges of rising costs and reduced revenues -- should engage the larger community of faculty members and administrators in critical thinking, creative problem solving and teamwork to generate such ideas appropriate to their institution and to their communities and develop the plans to implement them. In doing so, the leadership of these campuses will be modeling the very collaborative behavior that we hope to teach our students as they take their places in leadership in American society in businesses, government agencies, schools and colleges, and nonprofit agencies.

Bio

Benjamin Rifkin is professor of Russian and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Hofstra University.

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