In Cutting Programs, Universities Try to Swing the Ax Gently

January 31, 2010

At the University of Iowa, multiple committees appointed by the provost are examining the institution to help chart a new course for its future in the wake of steep budget cuts.

But the work of one panel in particular—a group charged with scrutinizing the caliber of the university's 100 or so graduate programs—has triggered angst among some faculty members, alumni, and students who wonder if the process will result in their programs' being eliminated.

"Even if their recommendations are preliminary, it's a provost-level task force, so you've got to take it seriously," said Russell S. Valentino, a professor in the department of cinema and comparative literature. "I don't think people are overreacting in feeling threatened."

Professors at Iowa have publicly chafed at the criteria by which their programs are being measured, and one faculty member, in an e-mail message to his colleagues, accused the panel of racism after it expressed concern about a lack of domestic students in a graduate program in Chinese.

The 19-member task force has a February 8 deadline for releasing a final report on its conclusions, and discussions among deans and department chairs will then begin in a process that continues through September.

As next week's deadline looms, the task force has tried to temper such emotions. For instance, the group had initially ranked 14 graduate programs as "weak." But last week, the panel switched to the softer-sounding "additional evaluation required"—a nod to the extensive discussions that will inevitably take place.

While the lower-ranked programs have not been officially named, faculty members say most of them are in the humanities. Among them are a Ph.D. program in film studies, a Ph.D. program and a master's program in comparative literature, and graduate programs in American history, Japanese, and Chinese.

Inevitable Outcry

The rough patches in the process at Iowa are indicative of what can lie ahead when colleges seek to winnow down the number of programs they offer. To be sure, cutting programs isn't impossible, but it's the kind of task that draws the watchful—and often skeptical—eyes of faculty members who don't always buy into the motives behind paring back. And according to some institutions whose undergraduate and graduate programs are now leaner, a move to cut programs can easily be derailed by misinformation and rumors about the process, faculty and alumni outcry, and failure to link such cuts to a bigger plan for the college.

"There's nothing easy about doing this at all," says Bruce J. Cochrane, dean of graduate studies at Miami University, in Ohio. "This is not something you want to see happen, and I think however one does it, you're going to be criticized until the end for not being consultative enough."

Mr. Cochrane led a yearlong review of Miami's graduate programs that began in early 2008 as a way for the institution to take a closer look at how it used its resources on the graduate level and deciding whether ineffective or low-enrollment programs should be scaled back. The committee, largely made up of associate deans of the college's five academic units, surveyed the institution's graduate programs to learn general information about them, then sought more-specific data about each—faculty productivity, quality of applicants, and number of students enrolled, among them, Mr. Cochrane said.

Programs were then ranked, with doctoral, master's, professional, and education programs measured among members of their own group. And although programs fell into tiers, their ranking wasn't the only factor in deciding their fate, Mr. Cochrane said. "If a program served a local need, that was taken into consideration."

What wasn't taken into consideration at Miami was how its graduate programs measured up against others in that discipline across the country, Mr. Cochrane said. "Conveying that to people is hard. When you're doing a review like this, that's not what you're trying to do. You're looking at how they measure up at your institution. The program might not be a strong one at our school," he said.

In the end, Miami cut graduate assistantships for five programs: its master's degree programs in communication, Spanish and Portuguese, and environmental sciences, and its doctoral programs in history and political science. The move effectively shuts those programs down (although environmental sciences is making a switch to a self-sustaining financial model) because they won't be able to recruit students. But taking the steps to formally eliminate the programs isn't on the horizon.

"That has a real level of finality that we're not ready to take," Mr. Cochrane said.

Fostering Widespread Involvement

At the University of Idaho, program cuts in 2009 followed about four years of work on a strategic plan. After shunning the idea of closing or merging departments, a committee that included deans, a vice provost, and directors turned to reducing the number of programs offered at the institution.

Forty-one graduate and undergraduate programs were slated for closure at the outset. Ultimately, 35 program cuts were approved by the Faculty Senate and the State Board of Education last spring.

Douglas D. Baker, provost at Idaho, says constant—and consistent—communication with stakeholders along the way was critical.

"The way we got through this was by working through the Faculty Senate and the president's cabinet and students up front," Mr. Baker said. "We talked about how the process would work. And we worked with them on the criteria we were going to be using and made it clear that they were a starting place for discussion, not the ending place."

Mr. Baker said that in-person talks to colleges and departments, phone calls, e-mail messages, and letters about the process became the norm for him because "you have to lay out what you're doing and why. It's incredibly time-consuming, but it's a necessary investment."

Although shared governance played a big role in the program reductions at Idaho, Mr. Baker is convinced that the institution's move to recreate itself at the same time has made the cuts more palatable.

"I don't think many people will just sacrifice and cut unless they have a sense that there's going to be a new and better future afterward," Mr. Baker said.

A Second Chance

Sometimes faculty input makes a difference for programs in the cross hairs, as it did for a handful at Idaho when the Faculty Senate voted against their elimination. But an outcry from alumni and friends can also help, as directors of the program in women's studies at Florida Atlantic University found out.

Florida Atlantic had announced that after this year it would commit no more money for teaching assistants in the master's-level part of the program, which it said was underenrolled. However, what would normally be an effective shutdown turned into a second chance after alumni and friends spoke up. The newly renamed Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies has been allowed to fund-raise itself back into existence.

"Our expectation and our hope is that they'll raise enough money from the public around us to sustain the activities of the center and the master's program," said Manjunath Pendakur, dean of the College of Arts and Letters.

Back at Iowa, David R. Drake, a professor of microbiology who is president of the university's Faculty Senate, says he has had his share of conversations with concerned colleagues who aren't certain that what the task force has done so far is preliminary. Indeed, the director of film studies at Iowa, Corey Creekmur, wrote an open letter to alumni asking them to help the department "articulate the importance of the excellence of our programs to those who will be deciding on the future of our programs."

Mr. Drake said he has reminded professors that what the task force has said and done so far isn't final.

"Shared governance is pretty strong here at the University of Iowa," Mr. Drake said. Before the Board of Regents acts on any recommendations in the fall, he said, faculty members will have plenty of opportunity to weigh in, along with deans and department chairs and other members of the campus community. "There won't be any rash decision making here."