Institutional shared governance is not easy. You must trust that others are working in the best interests of the institution, and others must trust that you are doing the same. Building that trust requires engaging colleagues across the faculty and across campus with open minds and in safe spaces to have sometimes difficult conversations. In a crisis, however, governance conversations that begin quickly and require rapid responses can (and likely will) break down trust and tear apart a community. Developing, maintaining, and enacting clear academic policies and procedures around academic program review ensures that any emergent prioritization process, especially if compelled by external threats to the university, does not create undue damage to institutional culture.
The dean of arts and sciences at University of Colorado-Boulder was once excoriated for his comment, “never waste a good crisis,” as support for program prioritization and elimination of unsustainable academic programs. The comment certainly demonstrated a significant tone-deafness to the level of anxiety felt by faculty, but it also was wrong. A crisis is never the time to begin conversations about prioritization. If prioritization is done effectively, as an ongoing process engaging shared governance, then when a crisis comes and financial decisions must be made, then those decisions won’t be made based upon facile metrics, including that a program is “too small” or has “too few majors.” Those decisions will be based on finances, and only finances, because the faculty will have already addressed issues of each program’s overall sustainability and its contribution to the institution’s mission and goals.
Program prioritization has been in the education news since the publication of Robert Dickeson’s Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, in 1999, and seldom, if ever, with positive headlines. Because prioritization typically looks toward the long-term prospects of majors and courses based upon trends in student enrollments, the process has emphasized analysis of the number of students who graduate with that major, the cost per student, and other quantitative and financially-driven metrics. As this has played out nationwide over the last few years, the results of prioritization, perhaps stereotypically, tended to advantage programs in high demand (e.g., business, pre-health, STEM), and disadvantage programs that were perceived to have a lower return on investment for students and their future careers. Unfortunately, the latter areas tended to contribute to the breadth of a more traditional liberal arts college education (e.g., philosophy, art).
In a time of crisis, an analysis of any program’s overall sustainability and relevance for the institution’s mission and identity can be rushed, contributing to faculty anxiety and to short-sighted decisions. In our current perfect storm of demographic declines of the traditional-age student population, the enduring costs of the pandemic, and institutional financial hardship due to declining state support and rising costs, an individual faculty member’s fear for personal well-being and potential job loss only adds to the anxiety felt when program prioritization is launched. At a time of crisis, when a more immediate response is needed, an analysis that may take faculty in normal times an entire year (or more) to complete for a single program must be done often in a matter of months. When that happens, it is too easy to lose the objectivity needed to engage in this process fully and inclusively, and to analyze a range of appropriate types of data and institutional research.
In typical university shared governance structures, faculty members are delegated the responsibility to oversee curricular issues, which can range from changes in course content to maintenance of the entire academic portfolio. Many faculty governance bodies further delegate some or all of this work to a committee to guide academic units as they formatively assess academic programs, in the same way that they might guide the assessment of their program’s student learning outcomes. Because this analysis is formative, departments do not feel undue anxiety in hearing about the need to update their program(s) to maintain currency in the discipline or to achieve the agreed-upon learning outcomes. In other words, such assessment can be completed with the level of objectivity needed to do the job well.
It is important to remember too that faculty already regularly engage in academic portfolio maintenance even if it does not have a formal name or set of policies requiring it: faculty regularly modify course prerequisites, add or remove upper-level course offerings as colleagues retire and new ones are hired, or revise the structure of a major or minor. These efforts maintain relevancy of the curriculum and help to recruit students to the program. Reminding faculty that the work of prioritization has been happening, albeit without these activities being identified as “prioritization,” can help keep things in proper perspective. Most faculty recognize that our major offerings must align with student demands, even while we might wish we had droves of students desiring majors in Russian, Greek or Latin. Even beyond the humanities disciplines, at institutions where a major in business management (or some variant) has thrived, often the major in economics has shrunk. That these programs are no longer offered is not an indication of their (lack of) value as an intellectual discipline. While a standalone department or even a major program may not be viable, coursework in the field may still be offered and may, in fact, be highly valuable. Few people in pre-health fields would make a serious argument that understanding some Latin has no benefit to them, and certainly a strong foundation in economic theory is critical for any business degree. The unfortunate reality sometimes is that there is not enough demand among students who make up the institution’s applicant pool to continue to have extensive course offerings for a major curriculum.
Understanding some of the potential pitfalls of prioritization, how might the process be facilitated by faculty and driven by shared governance? We recommend several more proactive practices:
- Identify and create a process of periodic programmatic review within the faculty governance structure. Indeed, accrediting bodies such as the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) require regular program review (HLC criterion 4.A.1: “The institution maintains a practice of regular program reviews and acts upon the findings”, SACSCOC Standard 6: “the faculty is responsible for…overseeing and coordinating educational programs to ensure that each contains…appropriate content and pedagogy, and maintains discipline currency.”). This process must then answer two questions: is the program achieving its stated learning outcomes for students, and is the program in a sustainable position going forward? The former question is typically answered in such reviews, the latter question far less often. Because the latter question will be answered by the faculty through governance, then ways to address any perceived unsustainability will also be driven by the faculty. This is a key point. It is noteworthy that HLC and SACSCOC dictate only that they be reviewed, and the findings acted upon, not how they should be reviewed or how findings should be acted upon. Faculty should review and familiarize themselves with best practices from peer institutions regarding regular program review.
- The prioritization process should not be accomplished in a silo. Academic affairs staff such as the registrar or the director of institutional research should be working alongside faculty members to provide additional data from across and outside campus. Academic leaders, such as the VPAA, deans, department chairs, and program directors can be charged with guiding the process and working with others around campus to gather, evaluate, and contextualize information.
- In developing policies and processes, faculty may consider not only historical data but also future trends. What information can the Admission Office provide? What are admission counselors hearing from students in their prospect pool? What are athletic coaches hearing from their potential recruits regarding interested programs?
- Program reviews typically engage external peers in the process. Faculty may seek opportunities to serve in this role to gain insight and experience. They can also ask what other kind of training is needed. Often accrediting bodies have useful resources, as do many disciplinary organizations. Programs that have specific accreditation requirements (g., education, engineering) also can be resources, as regular collection and review of data is required for their affirmation. What is happening to programs at peer or aspirant institutions?
- Program review should also find methods to engage student perspectives beyond student evaluations of teaching. What are academic advisors hearing about programs when they speak to prospective and current students? Can students be engaged with external peer reviewers if there is a campus visit component to the regular review?
- Program reviews are a significant opportunity to raise concerns about a program’s sustainability by proactively engaging faculty in developing strategies to address issues. Many program reviews allow the department to raise areas of focus and to receive feedback from reviewers, the dean, and/or the VPAA/provost. Faculty might consider ways to shift the focus of the program to something more sustainable given their applicant pool (g., theatre to musical theatre in collaboration with the music department, a more traditional social-science-focused economics to business economics or financial economics). They may be able to consult with other departments and other faculty members and collaborate to find a new focus. This is the time for faculty to come together and respond proactively, not assume a zero-sum mentality about disciplines and students. Making policies and processes around program review transparent and part of the regular work of shared governance can go a long way to having faculty from across the school or college work together to ensure the vibrancy of all programs.
- All hiring is strategic. The work of regular program review can be especially valuable in informing plans for faculty hiring. Other than to fill immediate needs, such as when a departure occurs mid-semester, a resignation or retirement should not automatically presume to reproduce the person who departed. Instead, losing a faculty member should be an opportunity for the program and the college to re-envision itself over the next five to ten years, something which can be fostered in program review. A non-strategic focus on “needing someone to teach Professor Jones’ courses” will not provide a program with opportunities for growth and innovation. If regular program review is functioning well, department members will have been having a conversation about their vision and goals for their program and will be ready for such opportunities. At the same time, university leadership must then make clear that departments do not necessarily “own” each faculty line and the institution may need to reassign an open position to another program to address class sizes and maintain desirable student to faculty ratios. The work of program review will allow departments to address those concerns collaboratively and proactively, not reactively.
A system of regular program review, with the processes and policies created through shared governance, can ensure that prioritization happens in a way that is both organic and faculty-driven. It is good practice for programs to review their major curriculum regularly and to determine how best to meet student learning goals and trends in the discipline. Programs with declining numbers of majors or low-enrolled upper-division classes can take the lead in addressing trends and proposing solutions in partnership with others at the university. When the faculty have this governance-delegated discussion of program prioritization continually and objectively (to the extent possible), working with now-vulnerable programs to identify long-term issues with particular programs and suggest solutions, the process can be done well and with a belief in the good intentions of others.
Governance only works if all parties do the work delegated to them. Decisions about academic programs do not have to be about personnel, and they are never about a programs’ intrinsic value. For better or for worse, governance decisions are made in consideration of the long-term best interests of the institution. The faculty can – indeed, must – work collaboratively, regularly, and inclusively to identify programs whose continuation, at least in their current form, may not be sustainable. But it can’t stop there. The faculty must then work proactively with colleagues, first to help those programs find ways to become sustainable, and second to help colleagues whose program may need to be discontinued.
Higher education is in a state of significant change, and the receding COVID-19 pandemic is not the only crisis that will come before us over the next decade. The way through such crises will be to work collaboratively across campus, faculty with administration, and faculty with other faculty, to make changes in the best interests of the institution.