Friday, April 2, 2010

Cutting Academic Programs In U.S. Universities

A friend sent me an article from the Chronicle Of Higher Education entitled  Disappearing Disciplines.(behind pay-wall)

It illustrates quite well the problems and conflicts arising out of budget cuts and program streamlining initiatives many U.S. Universities are being forced to undertake.

Administrators and faculty are at times working together to limit the damage and at other times the two are at loggerheads, often decisions are being taken by Administration without involving faculty. The Faculty especially  worry that programs are being evaluated using only one measure like enrollment number that might lead to programs considered by faculty as essential for a well rounded education to be eliminated.Or by completion rate which might put pressure on academic programs to lower standards to push up graduation rates.

Here is a nice glimpse into the different priorities of those involved:

Administration view:

The 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (which does not include the Pennsylvania State University system) have been ordered this spring to review all of their "low completion" programs—that is, those with fewer than 30 graduates during a five-year period. The campuses are being encouraged to consider consolidating or suspending those programs.

"With the limited resources we have, we want to be sure that our academic programs are appropriate to our universities' needs and to the needs of the commonwealth," says Kenn Marshall, a spokesperson for the system. "We are looking long-term, to make sure that we can operate within a balanced budget."

And the faculty view:

Several of the small departments that have come under scrutiny are philosophy programs. Wendy Lynne Lee, a professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, has been leading a campaign to protect those departments.

"A university without a robust philosophy major ... is simply anathema to the mission of a university," she wrote on Leiter Reports, a philosophy blog, in March. "This is not about enrollment; it is about what distinguishes a trade/professional/technical school from a university. Every single minute we are willing to play ball according to the chancellor's rules, which fallaciously link enrollment to program quality, we are in point of fact conceding to play by these rules."

At my Alma Mater Florida State University the geology program has been eliminated as an individual graduate degree program and has been merged with Oceanography and Meteorology. Several of the faculty I knew have had their contracts canceled.

Its a painful situation. Some feel that involving faculty in the program evaluation process might help mitigate the sense of marginalization faculty feel..there have been small success stories where faculty persuaded administration to retain a program..that however is no consolation for those who do get sacked. And often the manner in which lay-offs have occurred rankles. Prof. Froelich Jr. of Florida State University points to oceanography in which he has been tenured since 1978. The University recently encouraged the department to hire two new tenure-track appointments and then fired them 6 months later. 

Meanwhile Robert C. Dickeson, a higher-education consultant and a former president of the University of Northern Colorado has come up with a list of factors to consider when evaluating programs:
  • History, expectations, enrollment demographics. (For instance, does the program cater to part-time, older students to help them complete degrees?)
  • Demand from incoming students
  • Demand for program's courses to fulfill distributional requirements
  • "Inputs," such as quality of faculty members, students, and curriculum
  • "Outcomes," such as test scores and scholarly research
    Size, breadth, and depth
  • Overall impact and "essentiality" to college's strategic plan
  • Opportunity for saving or growing the program
Overall the message being sent out by faculty members is - we understand the Universities are in a crisis..but involve us in the restructuring process.


  1. When did you finish at FSU? I'm finishing the B.S. here, with about 13-14 others who'll be the last grads of the program. I think Arnold is leaving, Parker will be gone after this semester, and they're the two I like the best.

  2. i finished in 1996, did my Ph.D under Bill Parker.

    Arnold was on my committee too...sad to hear this.

  3. And we haven't even begun to talk about the absurdities going on in California. Nor is this purely a US problem - geology programs are being shut down in the UK also.

  4. geology taught at the high school level in U.K.? it really amazing and disheartening to see education funding patterns go counter to the need to have more earth science trained scientists to meet the many challenges.

  5. Geology (or "earth science")is included in the science curriculum in the UK, but is rarely taught as a subject in its own right. The problem is that, unlike the way I think it works in the US, it's taught by teachers who have no background in geology and themselves find it difficult. There's a great program (that I was involved in the early days of) that aims to address this at least at earlier grades than highschool - see

    Many geology programs at university and school level are struggling and I agree - it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. And there's another problem - I have heard from several academic friends that when a faculty vacancy arises the university often insists that it be filled by a climate modelling expert - even if this means, for example, that the department will lose mineralogy or stratigraphy skills. I know it's perhaps politically incorrect to say, but how many climate modellers do we need (simply because it's sexy and attracts funding) when it's at the expense of the basic science?

  6. when a faculty vacancy arises the university often insists that it be filled by a climate modelling expert - even if this means, for example, that the department will lose mineralogy or stratigraphy skills.

    I think that is a very good point. its getting harder to convince administrators that there is real value in teaching basic geology courses. Climate change for example has to be combated not just my "modelling" but by working with landscapes, soils and rocks and groundwater contained within.

  7. Perhaps I am wrong but I think what we are seeing in the US is in some sense, the fallout of a higher education setup overly targeted towards research. Dont get me wrong, I myself am doing a PhD here, but I just get the feeling that there are too many universities here trying to be world class research universities.

    There is no problem in this per se, the problem is that universities expect undergraduates to foot the bill, most of whom dont really benefit from their professors being leading publishers. This is especially true in more applied fields like engineering. You dont need an ISI highly cited researcher to teach first year numerical methods or second year fluid mechanics.

    At my university, where I also did my undergrad studies, undergraduate tuition has just become absurd. Just yesterday, the board announced general budget cuts, higher tuition, while raising salaries of some faculty by as much as 10 % !

    I think we Indians need to think hard about our higher education system. Perhaps a bifurcation of public research institutes and technical training institutions would keep costs under control. The researchers can work in the instis and teach classes occassionally, and talented students can intern with them. The bulk of the students need a good education and training, not a world class researcher who is simply uninterested in teaching them.

    Sorry abt the long comment.

  8. Vikram-

    thanks for that perspective. U.S does produce a lot of Ph.d's , it will be interesting to get a breakup of how much of a typical budget is being diverted to support research vs undergrad edu. Its probably a lot and this article gives a broader view of the problems of higher ed in U.S.

    regarding your comment on India, I would think that a bifurcation already exists in India between the "research institutes" and universities which to a large degree are teaching shops. So we seem to have gone to the other extreme! I have heard a lot of education experts say that this isolation of top researchers from students has hurt Indian higher ed!

    I see your point regarding technical training institutes. That's the role "govt. polytechniques" are supposed to very practical 1 or 2 year training courses to students. in terms of seeking employment, that's perhaps better than getting a B.Sc in physics. I don't know how successful that program has been. these days private institutes esp. in fields like in IT, hospitality are increasingly filling that role but they don't come cheap.