• July 23, 2014

The Distress of Program Cuts

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Late last year, I was interviewed for a news story that aired December 5 on NPR's Marketplace Morning Report program. Students had occupied the main administration building at Emory University, in Atlanta, to protest a restructuring plan that would shutter academic departments and discontinue degree programs.

Reportedly, nearly 50 students crammed into the main hallway of the building in an attempt to force James W. Wagner, Emory's president, into a discussion about the program cuts, which had been announced in September.

Students argued that Emory was unfairly targeting the liberal arts, and were especially upset that programs like journalism, physical education, and the visual arts were in jeopardy. The protesters did not seem to be comforted by the fact that no student would be affected personally, since the proposed changes would be phased in over a five-year period, and students in the affected programs would be allowed to complete their degrees.

The administration said the reorganization would help the institution enhance its core academic strengths and develop more contemporary academic areas, such as neuroscience, China studies, and digital and new-media studies. While campus officials stated that the changes were not proposed for financial reasons, they nonetheless admitted that approximately 40 nontenured faculty and staff members would lose their jobs (editor's note: garbled wording caused by an editor's mistake has been fixed here).

What is happening at Emory is not unique. Institutions across the country have reorganized both their academic and nonacademic departments lately, usually in an attempt to streamline their operations and save money. I discussed some of those efforts in a column back in 2010.

The NPR reporter who spoke with me in December was especially curious about why academic reorganizations generate the kind of passion and turmoil he was witnessing at Emory. He was mystified by the furor. "Why should a set of program closures and realignments cause such distress?" he asked me.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the student protest was only the latest in three months of campus "outrage" about the planned reorganization. And the first sentence of The Chronicle's story when the changes were announced begins, "Shock, distress, and a sense of loss roiled the campus of Emory University on Monday. ..."

Of course, there are many reasons for the furor. Having monitored campus reorganizations nationally, I can say that nearly every restructuring causes intense campus turmoil. Often they trigger protests like those at Emory and even votes of no confidence in college officials.

Typically, the stated reason for the anger is that faculty members were not involved in the decision making and felt blindsided by the proposed cuts. One professor at Emory, for example, was quoted as saying that the changes were handed down out of nowhere and that he was "aghast at the lack of process."

But a close analysis of many campus reorganizations suggests that those criticisms are often unwarranted. At Emory, university officials pointed out that for four years a faculty committee had been reviewing all academic programs in the arts and sciences to determine to what extent they had achieved "academic eminence" and whether they were "truly essential" to a 21st-century liberal education. The idea was to terminate programs that did not meet those standards and invest in programs that did.

In addition, the arts-and-sciences dean at Emory had appointed five other faculty committees to help determine how the college could best strengthen each of the five areas of growth identified by the original committee. (The five areas were neuroscience; contemporary China studies; digital studies and new media; programs to foster interdisciplinarity; and efforts to enhance the undergraduate science experience.)

In a letter published in The Emory Wheel, the university's student newspaper, President Wagner pointed out that the arts-and-sciences dean had "led appropriate and extensive discussions with representative members of the arts and sciences faculty" and that the dean had "acted on their counsel."

So, at least from the outside, it appears that professors were involved in the process. Why, then, do so many faculty members—not only at Emory but in similar cases—claim to feel blindsided once a reorganization is announced?

In my experience, faculty committees work diligently to study a proposed reorganization and make judicious decisions. But the faculty at large is not present in the committee meetings to witness the countless hours of deliberations that a typical panel will undergo in studying a potential reorganization. It may simply be that many professors were not paying attention to the process while it was occurring.

One good reason for representative committees is that they take on the hard work so that everyone else does not have to. In exchange for their taking on that work, the rest of us need to trust that our colleagues are working diligently on our behalf.

Another cause of anger over campus change is that some faculty members will inevitably feel that administrators are proceeding with a restructuring plan not for the good of the institution but in order to pad their vitas. That is a common allegation. It may well be true in an isolated case or two, but I believe that most reorganizations are undertaken for legitimate academic and fiscal reasons, and those reasons are typically articulated in the committee's final report and in public announcements about the changes. Besides, "overseeing a restructuring effort" may be a vita line, but not an especially impressive one. The campus turmoil, controversial headlines, and potential no-confidence votes would hardly be worth the effort.

Often, the high passions that erupt after a reorganization is announced are simply a visceral reaction to change itself. Faculty members at Emory were quoted as calling the changes there "sickening" and "profoundly disappointing."

While change is difficult for anyone, it seems to be especially difficult for those of us in the academic world. Our training and professional lives are guided by decades-old traditions, and too often we find it difficult to imagine a way of doing things differently from what we have become accustomed to, despite the promised benefits of a reorganization. Change just seems too threatening.

I do not have inside knowledge of how Emory administrators handled the process of securing faculty support for their proposed plan. But I do know that their instincts were correct. Colleges need to make every effort to remain current and relevant, and we should always do so for the best possible reason: our students.

Gary A. Olson will become president of Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y., at the end of this month. He was formerly provost at Idaho State University. His most recent book is "A Creature of Our Own Making: Reflections on Contemporary Academic Life" (SUNY Press). He can be contacted at garyaolson.com.

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