Stamping Out Rubber-Stamp Collegiality

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

May 29, 2012

In the past year, public colleges and universities across the country have been shrinking degree programs and terminating personnel—including tenured professors—in an effort to cope with budget cuts in higher education.

The situation is not confined to a handful of mismanaged public institutions, as in the past. It is a national phenomenon and the inevitable outcome of three trends that have been incubating now for a decade: expanding curricula, reduced legislative support, and increased student debt.

College presidents are scrambling to manage their institutions with fewer state dollars. A recent report in The New York Times argues for a new business model to pay for the costs of education, "beyond sticking students with higher tuition and greater debt."

To be sure, academe needs a new budget model (more on that later). But a model alone will not resolve the crisis as long as professors maintain a rubber-stamp culture that blithely expands course catalogs and degree programs.

When budgets are stable, pedagogical expansion is not a problem. When budgets are unstable, administrators and trustees are forced to eliminate or consolidate programs to maintain overall quality and all-important academic rankings.

But that expansion is the end of a long process of professorial niceties involving the creation of curricula. Faculty members, in part, are at fault for their willingness to approve too many new courses and degree programs without realistically assessing:

  • demand for the course or program.
  • impact on other programs in the institution (i.e., duplication).
  • complications involving scheduling and staffing.
  • effect on degree progress (especially four-year graduation rates).
  • cost involving workload and personnel concerns.

I interviewed faculty members and administrators about academe's rubber-stamp culture in the course of writing this column. Asked to explain the problem, one professor, who did not want to be named, said it "stems from both overt and covert messages in academe that imply that colleagues have 'no right' to express concern over the viability or importance in an area for which they have no expertise."

This professor described the curricular process at her Midwestern public research university: "A department of professors rubber-stamps a curriculum proposal and sends it off to the department chair, who is encouraged to rubber-stamp it up to the college, and it just keeps going up from there. Everyone defers to the very small handful of people that 'know' about this particular topic, and very few are willing to step in and change the culture by saying, 'Wait, is this a sustainable program of study?'"

At her university, art-school colleagues recently proposed two new degree tracks: "jewelry design" and "metalsmithing." At last word the proposals were on their way to the campus curriculum committee. "Few colleagues," she said, "felt they had the right to question whether these programs had the faculty and students to support them, or ask the costs that they would impose on the rest of the departments in the college."

In the end, she predicted, the proposals would be approved by the committee and sent to the dean and provost, "essentially allowing them to make the decision."

Administrators hesitate to overrule rubber-stamp collegiality. Professors resent intrusions into curricular matters because under traditional academic rules, they own the pedagogy.

One department chair, also requesting anonymity, is trying to consolidate runaway degree programs in her college. Frustrated by professors who challenge any change in the status quo, she called them "Letterhead Faculty."

"The only connection to the unit they work in is shared letterhead stationery," she said. "They simply are not invested in the collective. They teach their small classes, care for a very small segment of the student population, and then go home. Job done.

"When pleas for the collective good mean 'revise the antiquated bloated curriculum,' the only thing they are collective about is obstructionism," she added.

But administrators at the provost and presidential levels have unintentionally exacerbated the rubber-stamp culture by instituting budget models based on so-called responsibility-centered management. Promoted by the corporate world, RCM essentially operates on one concept: Reward revenue-generating activities, such as student credit hours. That is touted as "transparency," a welcome change from obtuse budget formulas by central administration.

The old budget formulas, typically based on the number of majors in a program, had one thing going for them: They didn't reward curricular expansion. RCM does.

To understand RCM, picture the university as a Wal-Mart superstore and students selecting all manner of courses off the pedagogical shelves. Each semester at the register they pay for "student credit hours" by the course, and the academic unit that created the course gets a chunk of the student's tuition. So departments keep proposing courses that appeal to the shoppers. The longer students stay in the pedagogical store, the more revenue they generate (and the more student debt).

The Wal-Mart model keeps students in the aisles for five, six, or more years when they should be walking down the aisle at commencement in four years or fewer. Worse, many students do not even realize the amount of debt they have amassed. A new study out of Iowa State University found that 13 percent of students who took out loans didn't realize they had borrowed money, and 37 percent underestimated the amount they owed.

Shirley Staples Carter, professor and past director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, describes another alarming trend caused by the RCM model. "In addition to problems such as course duplication that are often the result of rubber-stamp approval," she said, "journalism and mass-communication programs across the country are also feeling the effects of curriculum change." Some have fallen prey to the RCM approach, proposing trendy courses rather than emphasizing "good writing, ethics and professional responsibility, analytical and critical thinking, and creativity."

Worse, the spread of consumer and mobile technology makes people think everyone can do journalism, spawning faux media courses in such disciplines as English, design, agricultural education, marketing, and even hospitality management. At my own institution, Iowa State University, we have seen mass-communication pedagogy duplicated in three colleges.

The RCM model hates a curricular vacuum, even when none exists.

Case in point: Four years ago, the journalism faculty at Iowa State streamlined curricula, ending six emphases, including one in public relations. If it wasn't part of the degree, we posited, we would not build curricula around it, but we would still offer essential courses. We also prevented nonmajors from taking our small skills classes, reserving those for our majors to accelerate their degree progress. That helped us absorb three years of budget cuts without increasing professorial workload. Now almost half of our majors graduate in four years. (That accomplishment is not recognized by the RCM model since its goal is revenue generation.)

In the interim, however, we have seen aspects of our public-relations sequence emerge in various departments across the campus. Nonmajors without adequate training in public relations were going into the job market proclaiming they were practitioners with degrees from Iowa State, suggesting they were our majors. That could threaten our internships and partnerships with industry.

Industry is also at fault for expanding curricula. Chief executives on academic boards happen to discern a short-term need and so lobby universities to begin degree programs. In business, a decade is an eternity. In academe, when a new degree is created, we hope that it will still be around in a half century. That is how new, untested degree programs, especially in the sciences, are born in the RCM institution.

Budget models adapted from business often fail to function in academe, and for good reason. Business operates on demand, putting resources into products and services that show the highest sales. On the surface, it seems, that should work well in academe. For instance, it's a good idea to pretest demand for a course before listing it in a catalog. But there is a key difference between how business and academe operate: Business does not underwrite low-demand or outdated products and services. It terminates them. Academe doesn't terminate such programs; it keeps them on the books.

It is time we stamped out "rubber-stamp collegiality."

A good way to start is at the individual level. Professors should incorporate innovative or timely content in an existing course, such as a seminar or workshop, rather than propose new courses. Also, they should pretest demand for the course and document the students' interest for the department and college curriculum committees.

That is the procedure at the University of Kentucky.

"Our process for putting new courses forward for consideration involves a substantial pretesting phase," says Beth Barnes, the school's director. "We have a special-topics course number available to use. It's where we generally put study-abroad courses, but also provides a means of piloting other courses that we're considering making part of our curriculum. These are generally courses developed in response to either industry trends or student interests."

Barnes's school also keeps track of topics that students request for independent studies, "and when there appears to be a critical mass, we discuss developing a course to meet that need.

"Once the course is developed, we'll generally offer it several times under the special-topics designation, and then decide, as a faculty, whether it is a course that should be a regular offering. It's only at that point that we begin the formal course-proposal process."

Barnes also notes that the University of Kentucky requires significant documentation from the department that proposes a course and the university-level council that reviews it.

That level of documentation is lacking at many institutions. Not only should curriculum committees document demand for new courses; they should also require sign-off by curriculum committees of other departments with similar courses and inquire how introduction of new pedagogy will impact workload and scheduling, both of which can impede student progress toward a degree.

In the end, we need a budget model that recognizes programs with timely graduation rates and rewards departments for streamlining the curriculum rather than for expanding it. Professors can require fewer credits to earn a particular degree and give faculty senates and curriculum committees more power to avoid curricular duplication and expansion. Meanwhile, administrators, working in partnership with the senates and committees, can require "program responsibility statements," detailing the pedagogical territory of each department.

All of that would go a long way toward ending course duplication across departments, reducing time to earn a degree (and thus, student debt loads), and restoring public faith in our ability to manage state dollars wisely.

Michael J. Bugeja, who directs the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, is chair of the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.