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Faculty facing possible program closures can take action (opinion)

Many universities have eliminated small programs in response to enrollment and financial challenges. Whether justified by the small number of students recruited or graduated, the fill rates for courses in the major, the perceived employability of graduates, or all of the above, university leaders often consider program elimination when belts must be tightened.

My institution, the University of New England, has not been immune to such pressures. With key metrics for many of our programs’ vitality running in the wrong direction, university leadership announced a major restructuring in late spring 2020 that included disbanding academic departments across the College of Arts and Sciences and reorganizing programs of study into one of six schools.

A new School of Arts and Humanities, for which I serve as academic director, emerged. Faculty members were challenged to deliver “curricular efficiencies” and encouraged to view the change as an opportunity to raise the profile of our respective programs.

At the time, the possibility of eliminating programs in favor of collapsing small programs appeared very real. But we have thus far been able to avoid eliminating major or minor programs in our school, as the reorganization provided an opening for us as faculty to shift the narrative and make each of our programs more viable.

Rather than react to the challenge in ways one might predict (denial, outrage, rejection, resignation), or by making piecemeal tweaks, we developed a framework for change that both responds to the specific concerns raised by university leadership and establishes our vision for the school. Call it a strategic plan for the School of Arts and Humanities.

Our Framework

The School of Arts and Humanities delivers 13 major and minor programs and offers nearly 200 courses per year. Owing to a requirement for depth of inquiry beyond the major within our general education curriculum, many of our major courses do double duty as general education classes for nonmajors.

Still, our respective programs have been plagued by single-digit entering classes and relatively few graduates. Added to these challenges is the sense that some think the arts, English, history, philosophy and other fields of study are too costly and don’t prepare graduates for careers—at least not in the ways that our STEM or health programs prepare graduates.

Our framework, developed over summer/fall 2020, has four principal and overlapping components:

  • Establish interdisciplinary introductory and capstone bookends for programs in the school.
  • Use clear first-year scheduling to guide our students in the transition to college.
  • Broaden major and minor curricula to count targeted out-of-discipline coursework in those programs.
  • And foreground experiential learning and career readiness.

Interdisciplinary Bookends

One key challenge for our entering students has been invisibility within a college better known for its science and health programs. To address this issue, we created a seminar. Introductory Arts and Humanities, that entering majors now take. Starting this past fall, our entering students from across the range of arts and humanities programs are learning together in at least one class, looking carefully at the curricula and outcomes for their majors, engaging questions about the value of a liberal arts degree and making sense of their first term with us.

At the other end of our students’ education is a shared capstone enrolling students from across the various major and minor programs. While each program in our school previously had some capstone requirement, nearly every capstone ran as a directed study due to the small number of students. The courses were visibly inefficient, with enrollments of one or two students each. Additionally, our workload model for directed study means that faculty earned no teaching credit for guiding students’ work. Our new shared capstone learning experience—with a focus on guided, individualized work; reflection on learning; and translation of program learning outcomes to career-ready language—was accompanied by a measurable reduction in such one-off directed study offerings within the school.

Our framework only works if the bookends count toward each major within the school. At the same time, we need to be sensitive to the specifics of our context. Many of our students come to us through internal transfers as they change majors. The capstone works well as a culminating, synthesizing experience for these students. But the introductory seminar makes little sense as a requirement for a second-semester sophomore just signing on for a history or art degree. For this reason, we count the introductory seminar as an elective within each major.

Clear First-Year Scheduling

Each of our programs provides students with a sample four-year curriculum map, which professional advisers and faculty use to guide students. We have updated our maps to ensure more common touch points in the first term—with peers in their major, as well as with full-time faculty.

Our students take a number of anchor courses in the first year: our shared introductory seminar, two courses in the major, a required general education environmental issues class, a course in the humanities (but not in the major) meeting a general education requirement, a math course, a lab science class and a writing course. Our value proposition is that all credits earned will count toward the degree, students take classes with other first-year students in the school and they get right into major-specific coursework.

Multidisciplinary Majors

We are also working to reduce redundancies in course offerings and establish meaningful cross-disciplinary course recognition.

Our work here has been perhaps the most challenging. One concern that quickly emerged was possible erosion of disciplinary integrity in a move toward choose-your-own-adventure interdisciplinary majors. A second concern involved the possible erosion of expertise. If an English class can count toward the history major, does that suggest that anyone can teach history? A third concern was more practical: if an English major can count history and art courses toward the major, the student may take fewer English classes, which could lead to class cancellations in English.

While each of these concerns is real, we have thus far been able to shape what our multidisciplinary majors look like. Internally, our efforts are guided by what we describe as a spirit of generosity and reciprocity. After months of deliberation in 2021, we established within each program a list of out-of-discipline courses and committed to count up to two such courses toward each major. To identify which out-of-discipline courses would count toward each major program, faculty members proposed courses in their discipline for possible inclusion in other programs and looked through the offerings in the school for courses that might meaningfully fit within their own program(s) . By limiting out-of-discipline coursework to six credits and including those classes as major electives, we ensure that each major retains disciplinary integrity.

Our multidisciplinary major approach will make it easier for students to pick up a second major or minor in one of our programs, which may improve a key metric for us. Our goal is not to run more classes; it is to enroll more students in our classes for major or minor credit. From an efficiency perspective, our sharing of instructional resources reduces the number of low-enrolled classes and the need to staff as many classes each term. More interestingly to us, sharing holds the potential to make the School of Arts and Humanities a more vibrant, welcoming, creative and intellectual space for students.

Experiential Learning and Career Readiness

Employer surveys consistently demonstrate that skills learned in humanities programs—so-called soft skills like communication, critical thinking and creativity—are highly valued. Nevertheless, career prospects for an arts or humanities graduate remain among the main concerns shared by campus leaders, students and parents. We share that concern, and career readiness is not new for us. Prior to the reorganization, our programs already allowed for (or required) credit-bearing internships and other forms of experiential learning. But by making it a centerpiece of our vision, we embrace this as part of our value proposition, making it more visible to others.

We have doubled down on our relationship with our internships office, partnered with career services to support the career transition in the final year and integrated elements of job-search preparation into our shared capstone. I regularly get calls from our internship office alerting me to good (often paid and credit-bearing) internship opportunities, and we help identify prospective interns majoring or minoring in a program in the arts and humanities. On the longer-run horizon are efforts to establish early mentoring partnerships with some of our programs’ alumni.

Respond to the Challenge

Most—perhaps all—of my colleagues in the School of Arts and Humanities would likely have preferred we remain in our departments. We were not given a choice. For us—and for faculty everywhere who find themselves facing reorganization and possible program elimination—the real choice comes in what happens next.

At some institutions, mobilization for resistance may be a viable option. Resistance without an action plan that addresses the concerns giving rise to reorganization pressures, however, may simply delay the inevitable and reduce whatever maneuvering room might currently exist.

I recommend what might be called a responsive, strategic approach. Each campus is different, and the specific options available to faculty (and deans) depend on a great deal on local conditions. The specifics of our response are not necessarily transferable. But several elements of our approach might be productively employed by programs facing reorganization and/or threat of closure.

  • Listen carefully. Campus leaders will offer justifications when announcing a reorganization or possible program elimination, and they will provide some metrics. Alternative metrics would undoubtedly paint a different picture of a program’s viability and value. But additional, alternative data are more likely to become part of the conversation if the response is actually responsive to the articulated challenges.
  • Avoid point-by-point recovery. A list of reasons faculty members think the proposed or announced closure or reorganization is a bad idea does little to help campus leaders who may see no other options and cannot imagine an alternative path forward. It is vitally important to identify all the reasons that an administration believes reorganization is the only path.
  • Craft a strategic plan. Responding to the justifications and metrics offered by campus leaders, consider the range of changes you might make. Package those changes together and articulate the ways they amount to a coherent, strategic response. Be prepared to advocate for and embrace that action plan.
  • Move quickly and take concrete steps over time. It can be easy enough to rally around a single crisis moment. If the immediate crisis is averted, it is too easy to become complacent and return to business as usual. By remaining proactive and regularly taking visible steps to implement the action plan, campus leaders can recognize that things are moving in the right direction.

Our decision to engage productively with college and university leadership has demonstrated our seriousness. We have surprised many in leadership with our bold vision and quick action, which has bought us both high praise and breathing room. We can now build a school that works for our students, for us and for the university. Our success will depend on our ability to deliver on our plan, as well as support and cooperation from other units—admissions, marketing, finance and other schools in our college. And, of course, there are no guarantees.

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