A Healthy University Needs Surgical Cuts

The economic recession has not really hit the UNC system yet. Elsewhere in the country, budgetary demands have forced deep academic cuts, while North Carolina’s historically high rate of subsidization has afforded a cushion that other states lack.

Last year, the UNC system was able to get by through the elimination of non-faculty staff jobs and cuts to 115 campus centers and institutes. According to UNC president Erskine Bowles, 834 of the 935 positions eliminated last year system-wide were administrative. (Many jobs were ended by not filling vacancies rather than by layoffs.) And many non-essential positions, and most of the centers and institutes remain.

The North Carolina’s university system really can’t claim that the quality of its academic mission will be unduly damaged by further cuts when UNC-Chapel Hill has not one, but two, centers for African-American culture and history, and when N.C. State still offers an honors philosophy course exploring the possibility of time travel.  Other examples of unnecessary duplication or frivolous pursuits abound throughout the system.

Yet nothing lasts forever, and it is very likely that the UNC system will have to make hard decisions during the current legislative budget session. On Tuesday, April 6, at a legislative education appropriations subcommittee meeting, Bowles said that the system could weather a two percent cut this year without affecting academics. However, some legislators have suggested that five percent cuts might be more in order, and that, according to Bowles, would likely mean a total system-wide reduction of 1,000 jobs, with nearly half coming from the faculty.

In the rest of the country, such large-scale faculty cuts are usually not accomplished “across-the-board,” but through the elimination of entire degree programs. Should UNC take that approach, it will be necessary to first determine the procedures for eliminating academic programs, such as who will decide, and on what criteria the decisions will be based. The decisions made by other systems around the country offer some perspective, and perhaps even some lessons, for UNC.

The axe has already fallen in Nevada, a formerly fast-growing state hard hit by the downturn, with an unemployment rate above 13 percent. The school plans to not only end 38 degree programs, but to close its entire school of agriculture. According to a KTVN News report, 75 academic jobs will be lost.

Florida is another state with high unemployment (12.2 percent in March 2010). Last year, according to Inside Higher Ed, Florida State University terminated “62 faculty members, of whom 21 are tenured.” Also eliminated were ten undergraduate and three graduate degree programs.

These reductions have not been accomplished without controversy. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Florida State’s trustees relied on the administration’s advice much more than on input from faculty members, ruffling some well-lettered feathers.

The Chronicle article raised the issue of governance—who gets to make the decisions—when deep cuts to academic departments must be made. Governance is always a complex matter in academia. In North Carolina four branches of authority have influence in such decisions—the faculty, the administration, the trustees, and the legislature. Some pros and cons of each group’s propriety for making decisions regarding academic programs are:

  • The faculty know the subject material, they know what is needed for students to develop mastery of subjects, and they know about changes that are occurring in their fields. They can also best tell about the quality of a program, and they know which courses are popular. But they are predisposed against any cuts, and, as the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, decisions by faculty about eliminating programs can come down to office politics.

Furthermore, the faculty tends to be ideologically imbalanced.  Cutting degree programs is not just about scholarly matters or university issues. It is also about setting priorities for society—and faculties will set different priorities and favor different philosophies than others who are subject to popular oversight. Decisions must be made to cut traditional programs with declining enrollment or trendy, new programs—and professors might be likely to decide against the taxpayers’ wishes in such cases.

Also, in hard times, the choice might need to be made between the vocational programs likely to promote economic development and the arts, humanities, and social sciences—surely to be unpopular in some parts of the faculty lounge.

  • Administrators are in a unique position: they are often the mediator between the faculty and the trustees. In North Carolina, the UNC general administration is also the go-between organization for the legislature and the individual campuses. It often knows what is going on at the various campuses, such as which programs are attracting lots of students and creating revenue, and which ones are unpopular and costly. It also has the resources to conduct of commission studies to aid in the decision-making process.

However, high level administrators on individual campuses—chancellors, provosts and deans—often begin their careers as faculty members. They are therefore too aligned with faculty, and tend to have the same ideological imbalance as faculty members.

Furthermore, the interests of administrators are not always the interests of the state. According to the Denver Post, administrators in the University of Colorado system look to duplicate programs with high enrollments at other schools in the system in order to increase tuition revenues, whether or not it actually detracts from the overall quality of the system.

  • The trustees (or Board of Governors for the entire UNC system) represent the state and its taxpayers, as well as alumni. And, as the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests, they are “responsible for the fiscal health” of the university. They therefore should be well-poised to make financial decisions. However, they are often too focused on economic issues, and cede academic decisions to the administrators and faculty. In North Carolina, the Governors often seem to be little more than a rubber-stamp committee serving the general administration.
  • Legislators control the purse strings, and are directly responsible to the taxpayers. While they are not likely to involve themselves directly in the choice of which programs to cut, they can let their wishes be known. They also have the ability to reduce or eliminate funding for specific programs, centers, and institutes, thereby having an effect on the academic mission indirectly.

Also critical is determining the criteria for making program cuts. The most common criterion seems to be a program’s enrollment. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the 14 campuses in the Pennsylvania State University system are looking at roughly 250 “low-participation” degree programs for potential elimination.  The South Dakota Board of Regents is looking at 100 such degree programs.

Enrollment or completion (the number of degrees awarded) is an obvious choice for many reasons, particularly if the decision is based purely on financial reasons.  Low enrollment classes are much more costly on a per student or per credit basis, since fewer students pay the professor’s salary with their tuition, and such degree programs also tend to have higher per-student overhead costs.

But using enrollment alone can be detrimental to the academic mission. It can cause legitimate programs of study to be cut, while popular but less serious programs can remain. For instance, the University of Louisiana at Monroe is cutting its economics department—while the sociology department remains intact. By almost any measure other than enrollment, economics is the more valuable program. It is much more demanding and rigorous, it prepares students for lucrative careers (unlike sociology), it stresses mathematics and practical reasoning, and it is less prone to overt politicization. Sociology, however, is more popular with students, largely because of its ease. It is equally popular with administrators, because it is often a cash cow—it can be taught in very large sections that bring in lots of tuition money.

The importance of a program to the economy of its state or region cannot be ignored, either. Producing large numbers of sociology degree-holders might actually be detrimental to the long-term health of a state or regional economy, while economists and statisticians (a degree program that is being cut in several university systems) are ordinarily in high demand.

Perhaps academic policy-makers should consider another perspective on this matter. By reducing or eliminating large, popular programs with questionable utility and academic value, they are forcing students to make better decisions about their majors (and therefore better decisions about their futures). 

The number of similar programs in the state or region is also important. For instance, four of the sixteen universities in the UNC system have programs in marine biology—including two in the Piedmont Triangle region over 100 miles from the bay. Obviously, reducing such redundancy should be one goal. 

Programs that are inherently political rather than objective fields of study should be among the first cut. Some courses are blatantly so:  The University of California at Santa Cruz has a degree program called “Community Studies,” described as an “interdisciplinary program geared toward community involvement and social change.” In other words, it has existed to train left-wing activists. California is sensibly suspending the program after 40 years, even though it is popular: 135 Santa Clara students will graduate with a community studies degree this year. (Naturally, community studies students applied what they were taught by protesting the cut!)

Many women’s studies and ethnic studies programs were started due to political pressure and now serve as political advocacy programs for a one-sided point of view. Such programs do not belong in academia, where objectivity should be a standard. Other programs have become politicized, but are not inherently so, such as sociology, English, and even geography.

Faculty members in the Chronicle of Higher Education article also cited the academic quality of a program as an important criterion for elimination. But quality can be a highly subjective matter. Furthermore, if a program (or its faculty) has particular renown, it is likely to attract enough students to avoid scrutiny due to low enrollment.

While UNC officials suggest that any cuts on the academic side will harm the academic mission, that mission can be better served by using the downturn as an opportunity to set priorities. During years when the legislature is generous, waste and faddishness tend to creep in. Now is the time to reverse that trend, and to combine or eliminate struggling programs, end unnecessary duplication, and place some boundaries on the system’s increasing politicization.