Stamping Out Rubber-Stamp Collegiality, Part 2

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

August 22, 2012

If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it is that academe must abandon its usual strategy of begging state lawmakers for more money while expenses rise for utilities, technology, and instruction. Neither can we continue pressuring donors to give and give, or count on a turnaround in the economy.

In Part 1, I argued that the financial crisis in higher education—high tuition, excessive student debt, and diminished legislative support—had been exacerbated by a rubber-stamp culture that expands curricula beyond the means of many colleges and universities. Now I'd like to suggest some solutions. I believe we can decrease debt to a point where institutions can contemplate how to freeze, or even lower, tuition and provide access to education for future generations. The following series of steps, taken over a period of years, could help us dig our way out.

Curtail mission creep. Missions tend to expand, even during recessions. Course sequences aspire to be degree programs, degree programs to be departments, departments to be schools, schools to be colleges, branch colleges to be universities, and universities to be all things to all people, from burgeoning student-affairs budgets to mammoth athletics programs.

Arguments can be made for each of those expansions. After all, academics excel in persuasion. But there is also reality. What happens when our tendency toward curricular growth happens during a period of scarcity?

The answer, as with wellness, is not in emergency surgery but in prevention. By focusing on student retention, degree progress, program duplication, governance, reorganization, and incentives, we curtail mission creep at all institutional levels.

Promote faculty advising. Chairs, directors, and, yes, even deans, should teach first-year orientation courses. One assignment should be an undergraduate plan of study so students know what needs to be done to graduate in four or fewer years. In my own program, we tell students that their undergraduate plan may be the most important assignment in their college careers because getting it wrong means an additional year waitressing or busing tables at Buffalo Wild Wings.

That gets their attention.

So do open doors. Office hours—a minimum of four to six a week—are a surefire way to retain students. It's one thing when students graduate with debt; it's another when they leave with debt and no degree at all. When students drop out, they tend to drop off everyone's radar, even though we may have disenfranchised them for life.

Professors, especially in the sciences, engineering, and professional fields, often leave advising to support-staff members. Some research universities hire dozens of academic advisers because professors will not, or cannot, understand the curriculum. And some scholars believe that advising is beneath them. Bulletin: You're not working full time for Los Alamos National Laboratory; you're in higher education. It's not enough to offer students general career advice. That's not advising.

Revise degree requirements. The basics:

  • Do not recruit assistant professors on the promise that they can create their own courses. That just adds to the workload, because someone has to cover existing courses.
  • Do not reward curricular expansion in promotion and tenure. Instead, reward a faculty member for being creative within the existing pedagogy.
  • End all course sequences, tracks, options, and emphases. Don't build a curriculum around a specialization that's not essential to a degree.
  • Introduce experimental or timely courses into existing series of seminars and workshops. Test demand. Discontinue outdated or low-enrolled courses.
  • Reduce the number of credits needed for a degree.

Understand campuswide requirements. Many professors do not know degree requirements in their own institutions, except, perhaps, within their own programs. What courses are being taught by colleagues across campus? What courses or degree programs seem duplicative?

Not knowing what is taught in other departments may just be the reason so many of us reinvent the curricular wheel. You can test that at almost every campus: Just count the number of "film" classes in the catalog. Or multimedia. Or social media. For bedside reading, I recommend the course catalog.

Educate the admissions office. My communications school offers six public-relations classes within our journalism and mass-communication degree program. We found that prospective students interested in careers in public relations were being sent by the admissions staff to programs in "agricultural business" and "event management." That's probably because searching the university's database for "public relations" brought up this result first: "MAJOR. AGRICULTURAL BUSINESS. The major in agricultural business prepares students for advanced studies and for careers in ... agricultural reporting and public relations." The search also turned up courses about communication studies, textiles and clothing, hospitality, and apparel marketing—in other words, any courses in the catalog that mentioned "public relations."

So we met with admissions officials, explained our pedagogy, and made sure we used "public relations" repeatedly in our program descriptions.

We're contemplating striking back, revising our description so that it reads: "As you study communication platforms in journalism, advertising and public relations, you will learn about potential careers not only in your major but also in special fields such as agricultural business, event management, hospitality, marketing, and even textiles and clothing."

Require programs to carve out their territory. Departments and schools use "program-responsibility statements" to carve out their primary pedagogical territory. The statement for my school reads: "The Greenlee School serves the industry and the public by reinforcing the principles of journalism and mass-communication education, by generating knowledge that can be applied to professional practice, and by providing expertise and communication support to development efforts at the international, national, and local levels."

Every academic unit should file a program-responsibility statement, so that curriculum committees and faculty senates can refer to them before approving potentially duplicative new courses or degrees.

The Googlization of everything applies to academe. So we probably will change our school's statement to read: "The Greenlee School serves the industry and the public by reinforcing the principles of advertising and journalism and mass-communication education, by generating knowledge that can be applied to professional practice in such disciplines as broadcasting, public relations, print media (newspapers and magazines), photography, photojournalism, multimedia production, and science communication, and by providing expertise and communication support to development efforts at the international, national, and local levels."

Share curricular governance. Professors own the curricula and administrators share governance. That's how it is supposed to work. Too often, professors share the curricula—rubber-stamping new courses and degrees—and administrators overlook the governance.

Chairs of curriculum committees should publicize agendas and minutes so that all are aware of proposals and can contest duplicative courses. Better still, faculty senates can use technology so that everyone can view where a proposal stands (as well as arguments for and against it). This is a system that mirrors that of academic journals, informing authors online where an article stands in the review-and-publication process.

We know how to do this, folks.

Reorganize departments into a school. During budgetary crises, administrators cut low-enrolled programs, sparking debates about whether scientists need to know philosophy, or engineers literature. Of course they do. We call that general education. Too often, though, small degree programs in the humanities and social sciences assign graduate students to teach the many while professors teach the few.

Those programs do not need to be eliminated, but they may need to be reorganized. What's the difference? When you eliminate a department, you terminate its degree programs, a complex process that typically also results in protests and detenuring procedures. By reorganizing departments into a school, you maintain the degree and many of the continuing professors, although not nearly as many will be required to deliver the degree in the new structure.

Schools were created organizationally as efficient, cost-effective vehicles to deliver degrees. School structure consolidates related pedagogies, clustering majors of like disciplines into a core curriculum. For instance, students majoring in journalism, public relations, and advertising at a typical accredited journalism school all have to take the same required courses in writing, digital design, media law, and ethics, with a capstone internship experience. Students also take specialized classes in their own media disciplines. Now consider if each of those majors were in stand-alone departments. The journalism department would offer a course in beginning reporting, the public-relations department in beginning writing, and the advertising department in copywriting. You would have a multitude of required courses in entry-level writing rather than one. And you'd see the same level of duplication in the sophomore, junior, and senior years with design, law, and ethics courses.

The advertising degree program in our communications school has only three and a half teaching positions, and nine courses, serving close to 300 majors. Another department across campus, also with about 300 majors, has more than 20 professors and 60 courses. Now imagine if nine related departments were consolidated into three schools in various colleges in a university. That could mean a savings of dozens of instructors and hundreds of courses.

You can have schools of social science, humanities, and even natural sciences. You just have to find a common core of classes in our increasingly interconnected, interdisciplinary world. Schools are efficient administratively, too. Rather than appoint a chair for each department of related disciplines, plus associate chairs and staff members, all you need is a director of the school and one set of support administrators and staff members.

Count the number of schools in your university. The fewer you have, the larger your instructional budget and the thicker your catalog.

Revise the budget model. Administrators are fond of saying that 90 percent of the budget is tied up in payroll. Another way to say that is: 90 percent of the budget is tied up in curricular instruction and support services.

Let the course catalog be your bible. Administrators can use new and old catalogs to determine instructional growth by calculating the number of course titles for a period of academic years. Then ascertain the level of departmental expansion, totaling the number of courses offered in each year for each degree. Correlate those results with budget numbers for each year. That data will give you useful information about cost per course and major, all of which can be charted next to graduation rates and levels of legislative support.

The results may surprise you. You may learn that the taxpayer was, after all, paying the tithe. After analyzing the data, identify those departments with:

  • The fewest courses in the catalog.
  • The largest enrollments in their majors.
  • The best "cost per course" ratio.
  • The lowest number of credits needed to complete a degree.
  • The highest levels of retention, four-year graduation rates, and placement.

Once best practices have been established, modify the budget model to reward or recognize units that successfully adapt.

Offer incentives for streamlining. Trustees can recognize "programs of distinction," creating incentives—faculty raises, professional development, innovation funds, seed grants—for departments that find cost savings, graduate students in four or fewer years, have high retention rates and placement percentages, and serve the public through research or practice.

If all of those steps are taken collectively, over time, debt will decrease, tuition will stabilize, and education will become affordable again.

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.