Why Universities Are Streamlining Their Curricula

Brian Taylor

December 01, 2010

In my state, the provosts of public colleges and universities meet formally every other month as the Council on Academic Affairs and Programs to discuss education issues of statewide import, such as new degree programs. The sessions are part of the formal governance structure of higher education here, and at least one member of the state board typically attends.

Before a new degree program can be forwarded to the state board for approval, it must be OK'd by the provosts' council. For example, the provosts must be satisfied that the new program does not duplicate a similar one in the state, and that it meets the work force needs of the state and the nation—that is, that graduates would have a reasonable expectation of securing employment with the degree.

At a council meeting a few months ago, we were discussing a new Ph.D. program proposed by one of the state's universities, when a state board member said, with obvious frustration, "You provosts keep asking us to approve new programs, but where are the program closures? How can we as a state afford unchecked expansion of academic programs without a commensurate reduction of unproductive programs from our books?"

It was a valid point. That savvy board member understood that curricular glut—as it is called in academic circles nationwide—is threatening to make our institutions inefficient and sluggish. We have become so overcommitted in course requirements and programs that it is threatening our ability to provide adequate support of our healthy academic programs.

Many colleges and universities are re-examining their curricula and assessing what should be trimmed and what should be enhanced. Generally, institutions are scrutinizing three key areas of reform: general-education requirements, requirements within majors, and underperforming programs.

The dire financial situation for higher education in most states has accelerated the process of streamlining, especially the elimination of weak programs. The University of Maine created an Academic Program Prioritization Working Group to analyze which programs to cut, and in what order, to meet budget reductions while maintaining high-priority academic programs. The group's final report is appropriately titled "Achieving Sustainability."

The State University of New York at Albany recently announced that it would close programs in the classics, French, Italian, Russian, and theater. Student demand for those programs is ebbing nationally, and many institutions are finding they don't have the budget to keep marginal programs afloat.

Faculty and staff members often oppose program closures. In response to the SUNY announcement, the American Association of University Professors recently urged the SUNY president to reconsider. And a national petition is being circulated that expresses "concern and dismay" over the elimination of the language programs (but not, apparently, over closing the classics and theater programs). As of the writing of this column, the petition had 13,691 signatures.

I understand those strong feelings. But there seems to be a pronounced lack of understanding as to why universities find program closures to be a necessary and, in many cases, positive action.

As an example, consider a fictional languages department at a public university. Let's assume that the department's program in Spanish is thriving: Student demand for courses and degrees is unprecedentedly high, and each semester the department must turn away many students.

The faculty members in the Spanish program are stretched thin. Their courses are always full, and sometimes, they even teach an extra course or two with no compensation just to help the students clamoring to get into or through the program. Unlike some of their colleagues teaching other languages in the department, the Spanish faculty members are operating well beyond capacity. They are so overextended that they don't have time to serve on collegewide committees, and their research productivity is suffering because they are so focused on serving their students.

In contrast, professors in the Serbian languages program in our fictional department have a much lighter workload. The program's three professors teach a handful of students, and it only graduates one to two a year, the same number as it has annually for more than a decade. Typically, a Serbian course will enroll between two and five students. Meanwhile, in the very next classroom, a Spanish professor will be teaching an overflow course of 40 students.

What's wrong with that picture?

That scenario is fairly representative of a basic inequity that can develop among faculty members within the same department. Certain professors are stretched beyond capacity, teaching and advising record numbers of students, while their colleagues in the same department teach a fraction of that number for the same compensation. Scenarios like that are why colleges nationwide are re-examining their curricula. Departments have a set budget and a mission to provide instruction, but their budgets cannot possibly finance all of the courses and programs that faculty members favor. Something has got to give.

At that point, hard questions need to be asked. At our fictional institution, the questions would be: Can we really support a major in Serbian? Should we close the program and shift the resources to the burgeoning Spanish program? Alternatively, should we discontinue the major in Serbian (so long as the major is in the catalog, the courses must be offered) and instead offer only a minor or a few electives?

Let's say the three instructors in the Serbian program together make $240,000 annually, excluding benefits. And at any given time, there are 20 students in the Serbian program in one capacity or another. Let's also assume that the department typically hires two adjunct faculty members to help cover the required courses in the major. Combined, the twp adjuncts cost the department another $60,000 in wages. While the tenured and adjunct instructors may well be teaching other language students, together they are supporting a major that costs their department in excess of $300,000. Ignoring benefits and all the ancillary costs, this department is spending in excess of $15,000 per student to maintain this major—and it is unlikely in most public institutions that a student's tuition would cover those costs.

The question, then, for the chair and faculty of the languages department becomes, "Is it an appropriate expenditure of departmental resources to support the Serbian program at this high cost while Spanish is overwhelmed?"

A member of the Serbian faculty might answer, "No self-respecting university in this day and age would not offer a major in Serbian." But that answer ignores the underlying problem. The program is not supporting itself; it is, in effect, being subsidized by other programs on the campus—Spanish, in particular.

Of course, a private college—especially a well-endowed one—might well make a conscious decision to subsidize an otherwise unsustainable program for one reason or another. Maybe the program is central to the college's mission, or it is the only one of its kind and therefore brings distinction to the campus. But in an age of shrinking state support for higher education, most public universities do not have that luxury.

Public institutions have an obligation to be fiscally responsible, to protect the public trust. Maintaining underperforming and floundering programs at the expense of healthy programs violates that trust. What's more, it is unfair to students, because subsidizing unsustainable programs drains support from the healthy ones.

Substitute the word "German" for the word "Serbian" in this example and now you know a dilemma that many language departments are facing across the nation. Institutions are struggling with whether they should discontinue their German majors for the very reasons I have been discussing. Really, though, the precise discipline is beside the point. The reality is, healthy institutions regularly examine their programs for viability, whether they are in the sciences, the social sciences, the professions, or the humanities.

The same dynamic is at play with other types of curricular streamlining; for example, reforming general-education requirements that are needlessly inflated. Curricular glut makes programs and institutions operate inefficiently and disadvantages both students and faculty members. Students are crippled because unnecessary requirements decrease the students' likelihood to graduate in a timely manner. And faculty members are challenged because the more curricular commitments a department has, the more difficult it is for professors to find time to pursue other objectives, such as research and creative activities.

In short, the curricular reform that is under way throughout higher education is, first and foremost, about serving our students. It's about streamlining general-education requirements so that they can progress in a timely manner. It's about making sure that a major's requirements don't place unnecessary hurdles in students' way. And it's about trimming underproductive programs so that adequate resources can then be invested in programs with strong enrollment.

We owe it to our students—and the public, in general—to operate as efficiently as possible.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor with John Presley of The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders (Paradigm). He can be contacted at