St. Louis Post-Dispatch
November 10, 2010
By Tim Barker
With Missouri’s higher education funding crisis expected to deepen next year, public colleges and universities are being asked to consider cutting degrees that are unpopular with students.
It’s a review that was initiated by Gov. Jay Nixon, in part to look for ways to cut costs by eliminating programs that don’t produce many graduates. But while it’s still early in the months-long process, administrators are skeptical about the prospects of significant savings.
Missouri and other states have thus far dealt with budget constraints through pay and hiring freezes on campuses. But with continued shortfalls, states now must contemplate deeper cuts that would eliminate degrees and faculty members who support them.
“It’s disappointing. It’s regrettable. And sadly, it’s unavoidable,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the American Council on Education.
Reviews like these are actually fairly routine on state campuses. What’s different this time is that it comes at the urging of Nixon, who asked for the statewide effort when he delivered somber budget news to higher education leaders in August.
With federal stimulus money running out this year, Nixon said the state is unlikely to extend a deal with schools that held funding essentially steady in exchange for a tuition freeze. That’s going to mean deeper cuts in higher education funding next year. No longer, he said, can the state afford the luxury of supporting programs with low graduation rates unless they meet some particular state need.
Working through the Department of Higher Education, Nixon wants schools to justify or eliminate bachelor’s degrees with fewer than 10 graduates a year, master’s degrees with fewer than five graduates a year and doctorates with fewer than three graduates a year.
A final report is due to the governor in February.
But judging from comments by academic leaders at some of the state’s largest public schools, there won’t be any big savings, particularly in the short term. It can take years, they say, to close out a degree. And in many cases, affected instructors often have other obligations at the university.
Such is the case at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, where the low-productivity programs include the bachelor’s degree in philosophy. There may only be three or four philosophy graduates a year, but professors spend as much as 90 percent of their time with philosophy courses that students in other majors are required to take and part of the school’s general education requirement.
“If you eliminate the philosophy major, it doesn’t do anything for the workload,” said Ken Dobbins, the school’s president.
Others say they’ve already cut staffing through attrition and hiring freezes, and this latest review won’t yield anything new to cut. The University of Missouri-Columbia has dozens of programs – including degrees in geological sciences, theater and anthropology – under scrutiny. There may be some trimming and consolidation of degrees, but Provost Brian Foster said the school cannot afford to cut any faculty positions.
“We won’t see any savings in the immediate, intermediate or long-term future,” said Foster, noting the school has been preparing for the dark days ahead. “We have money in the bank to help us get through the really tough year or two that’s coming.”
But even if that money wasn’t in the bank, cutting degrees is not a quick fix.
A university could decide today to end a degree, but it’s not as simple as flipping an on/off switch. That’s because schools feel obligated to complete the education of those students who’ve already enrolled in the program.
“There would have to be a phase-out period over several years,” said Glen Hahn Cope, provost at the UMSL. “There would be plenty of years for everyone to finish.”
The school expects only modest savings through the review process. Some of that would come through a proposed consolidation of its French, German and Spanish degrees into a single foreign languages degree. But it won’t be fast, and it won’t be through layoffs: “I would imagine there could be some faculty departures in the next year or two that wouldn’t be replaced.”
For a school like Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., the review seems to be sort of a minor inconvenience. The liberal arts university has long maintained a streamlined approach to its degree offerings, having added only six majors in the past 25 years. Truman has six programs on the review list, but interim Provost Richard Coughlin doesn’t expect to lose much.
“I think we are about where we need to be,” Coughlin said. “Sure, you can always tweak one or two programs. But that’s not a lot in the big picture.”
What remains to be seen is exactly how much pressure might be brought to bear on Truman and other state schools by Nixon and higher education officials.
By law, only the governing boards of the schools have the authority to shutter programs. However, the Department of Higher Education does have the power to approve new programs – something that’s sure to be on the minds of school officials as they decide how much compromising they want to do.
But there’s been no talk of what, if anything, might happen if schools prove resistant to serious changes.
“I’ve never heard of any goal in terms of how much money it’s supposed to save,” said Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner of higher education. “Funding is going to get cut no matter what. This is a little extra prod from the governor.”
It’s also, perhaps, a sign that the relationship between state governments and public colleges is changing, said Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant with TopColleges.com.
With budgets in crisis everywhere, Goodman said it makes sense for elected officials to seek a stronger role in determining what’s being taught – and how money is being spent – on college campuses.
“This is about how much oversight the government should have over the higher education system,” Goodman said. “It’s an end of an era of purely autonomous behavior.”
That’s not something, however, that’s likely to be embraced by academics.
The type of review being pushed by Nixon can undermine the nature of universities, said Stephen Montgomery-Smith, vice president of Mizzou’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
Smith suggested that more attention should be paid to reducing administrative costs while playing down the value of eliminating academic degrees.
“I would call it a sacrificial lamb to satisfy the whims of a governor who wants to show that he’s doing something,” Montgomery-Smith said.