Faculty

What Happens When Entire Departments Get the Ax

June 18, 2009

MGH Photo for the Chronicle
Terry J. Converse (above, in a campus theater), a professor of theater at Washington State U., is upset that his department is slated to be axed while other programs remain intact.
The Jones Theatre at Washington State University is getting a $500,000 face-lift this summer. A construction crew has already ripped out its 500 orange and blue seats and is replacing them with new ones covered in a wine-colored fabric. The theater's walls are being painted a light beige, and a new set of black velour curtains will grace the stage.

But some professors are worried that the theater will remain dark. That's because the department of theater and dance is one of three academic programs slated for elimination because of budget cuts at Washington State. Officials say they must slash a total of $54-million from the university's budget over the next two years. The 11 tenured and tenure-track professors who work in the three programs are also on the chopping block.

Administrators are calling the eliminations "vertical cuts." Instead of slicing costs equally across the board as many other colleges have done, the administration singled out a few that it said were not crucial to the university's mission and attracted few students or little outside research money.

As the economy slumped this year, institutions in other states adopted similar strategies. The Louisiana Board of Regents cut the philosophy major at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, for instance, and colleges in Idaho, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin are also planning to eliminate programs and departments.

That has typically happened after broader austerity measures have failed to stanch enough red ink. "You can bleed to death from a thousand cuts," says Warwick M. Bayly, provost at Washington State. "We felt we had to prioritize."

But selective cuts have their own price. Faculty morale is hurt, and professors worry that the damage extends to the overall reputation of the institution. Terry J. Converse, a professor of theater who has been at Washington State for 18 years, is angry that his department is scheduled to be wiped out completely while others remain largely intact. "It's unconscionable," says Mr. Converse. "It's just not fair to knock off a very functional department that is critical to the liberal arts when it clearly could have been completely avoided."

Justifying the Cuts

As colleges and universities struggle through the nation's economic downturn, most are trying to preserve both academic programs and tenured faculty jobs. When it comes to saving money, universities are laying off staff members, freezing future faculty hiring, imposing furloughs, and trimming operating expenses. Some are merging academic departments, but few are eliminating them outright.

Besides theater and dance, Washington State also wants to get rid of the German major and the department of community and rural sociology. It figures the cuts will save $3.6-million over the next two years. In documents justifying the cuts, officials said professors in theater have too little time for research and that those in community and rural sociology bring in little money for research. Rural sociology has no undergraduate majors, and German awarded only four degrees in 2008. The theater program, administrators said, lacks "visibility and impact."

Other universities that have sliced specific programs include the University of Idaho, which has cut 18 degrees, including master's of arts in the teaching of Spanish, French, German, history, chemistry, and earth science. Administrators at Florida Atlantic University want to suspend the master's program in women's studies. And the political-science major was eliminated this year at Wisconsin Lutheran College after the college laid off the two faculty members who taught in the discipline.

On some campuses, the cuts have become a rallying point for faculty members, students, and alumni. At Louisiana's Lafayette campus, where the philosophy major was cut, a dozen students and alumni boarded a school bus near the campus in late May to attend a Board of Regents meeting in Baton Rouge. They wore white T-shirts with black lettering that said, "Let My People Think." Their mission: to persuade the board to reinstate philosophy. "How can you have a university without a philosophy program?" asks István S.N. Berkeley, an associate professor in the program who traveled to Baton Rouge.

While the regents said they were sympathetic, they did not change their minds. The board had decided in April to cut the philosophy major along with dozens of other "low completer" programs at Louisiana's public colleges. In the last five years, the philosophy program at Lafayette has graduated fewer than four students per year. In documents on the program cuts, the regents said that "philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students."

Gerard L. Killebrew, the regents' associate commissioner for academic affairs, says the decision to eliminate the philosophy major wasn't easy. "The idea of philosophy as a core discipline is exceptionally valid," he says. "But that can be accomplished without having a free-standing program. There simply are not enough students to justify it."

The regents did not say how much money they would save by eliminating the low-completer programs, and, unlike Washington State, faculty members in the programs will not automatically lose their jobs. But Mr. Killebrew says professors in the programs who retire may not be replaced, and universities would save money on the costs of administering the programs, such as maintaining accreditation.

The five tenured or tenure-track faculty members in philosophy will continue to teach introductory-level courses to nonmajors. But it isn't clear whether the professors will be interested in staying at Lafayette without the challenge of teaching advanced courses.

Keith Korcz, who coordinates Lafayette's philosophy program, says eliminating the major runs contrary to the university's overall mission statement, which says: "The University is dedicated to … a fundamental subscription to general education, rooted in the primacy of the traditional liberal arts."

Mr. Korcz also points out that student interest in philosophy is on the rise at Lafayette —a total of 31 undergraduates had declared it their major as of last January. And the program's philosophy club attracted more than 150 students at one of its meetings last year.

"This program is stronger than it's ever been," he says. "But the board has said, If you want to make a serious study of philosophy, you can't do it here."

'Just the Beginning'

Peter D. Eckel wrote a book in 2003 called Changing Course: Making the Hard Decisions to Eliminate Academic Programs. Now a new edition of the book is coming out. "These issues are back on the table," says Mr. Eckel, who is director of programs and initiatives for the American Council on Education's Center for Effective Leadership.

Mr. Eckel predicts that the current round of academic-program cuts in higher education "is just the beginning." He says universities start eliminating academic departments when "there are no more notches in the belt to tighten." Administrators who do the cutting, he says, evaluate programs according to three criteria: cost, quality, and centrality to the mission of the university. Small numbers of students, few faculty members, and a home in academic units with other priorities all heighten the risk.

Most of the professors at Washington State will be allowed to work another academic year before they are out of a job. The university's faculty handbook allows it to lay off faculty members if their department is eliminated, although Mr. Bayly, the provost, says the university is trying to find jobs for the professors in other departments.

The university may have underestimated the outpouring of support for some of the programs it wants to scrap. Scholars have staged a national letter-writing campaign on behalf of the rural-sociology department, and in May students in theater and dance conducted a silent march across the campus to the president's office. (Despite the elimination of theater and dance, says Mr. Bayly, the newly renovated Jones Theatre will still get some use.)

In addition to eliminating three academic programs, university officials had also planned to cut a fourth program —in sport management —but faculty members persuaded administrators to grant the program a reprieve, at least until next year. The administration had said sport management was not central to the mission of the university. But professors pointed out that sport management graduates about 50 student majors a year and provides free athletic-training expertise to the university's sports programs. The provost is considering moving it from the university's College of Education to its College of Business.

The university is also making significant budget cuts in most of its other units. It announced details of those plans last week, saying it would cut the salaries of top administrators by 5 percent, consolidate some academic majors, trim its cooperative-extension program, and cut 192 jobs. Most of those jobs are administrative and staff positions, but some are academic positions off the tenure track in the classroom, the library, and in research centers. The College of Nursing is one of few that will be spared any reductions. Mr. Bayly says that is because nursing is considered a "high demand" area by the state legislature and its budget is already slim.

Mr. Eckel says faculty members can take steps to protect their programs from elimination. First, he says, professors should build connections between their programs and other units on the campus and position their programs so they are seen as "integral to key university activities." Professors should also build off-campus allies for their departments, he advises, and be ready to explain how their elimination would affect important constituencies, including students, women, and minority-group members.

Mr. Bayly says he understands how painful some of the cuts are. "Generally, nobody ever thinks they deserve to be reduced or phased out, and it's a very difficult thing," he says. "It is stressful and heartrending to have to make these decisions."

Annabel R. Kirschner, a full professor in community and rural sociology, is just three years away from her planned retirement. Closing academic programs and laying off tenured faculty, she says, are dramatic steps for a university to take. "I'm concerned it will reflect on the prestige of the university for many years to come," she says. Besides, Ms. Kirschner believes the action just wasn't necessary. "If they had done a 10-percent cut across the board," she says, "there wouldn't be a need to terminate tenured faculty." Mr. Bayly, however, says the university already tried that approach, making across-the-board reductions totaling between 2 percent and 5 percent in about 10 of the last 15 years. It wasn't enough, he says.

José L. García-Pabón has taught in the community and rural sociology department at Washington State for only two years. His position is unique: He is the university's first Latino community-development specialist. He works with Latino farmers on agriculture and health issues, and on literacy issues with the Latino population in general. Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the state. "If I'm gone," he adds, "I don't think anyone's going to continue to do these kinds of things."