Faculty members at the University of Wisconsin at Superior said they were “blindsided” by this week’s announcement that the university was suspending more than two dozen academic programs, including majors in political science, sociology, and theater.
The programs were being phased out, the university said, as part of a streamlining process to make it easier for students to graduate on time. First-generation students, who make up 46 percent of the student body, tend to get overwhelmed by too many course offerings, university administrators said. As a result, they added, students often make bad decisions that cause them to take too many credits, incur too much debt and take too long to graduate.
No new students will be admitted into the suspended programs, but students who have already declared majors or minors will be able to finish them, the university’s announcement said.
Despite the $2.5-million deficit facing the university, the primary motivation for the suspensions was student success, not cost-cutting, administrators said.
The suspensions, which also include minors in computer science, physics, and journalism, were announced Tuesday morning at a department chairs meeting and then quickly posted on the university’s web page. The move surprised many in academe and prompted a backlash from faculty members who said they weren’t consulted first.
“Half of the offerings in my department were cut without any discussion or notification,” said Brent Notbohm, a professor of film and video and chair of the Communicating Arts Department.
“It’s left people demoralized and feeling like they didn’t have an opportunity to work with administrators to find pragmatic solutions.”
No faculty members will be laid off as a result of the suspensions, but several faculty members interviewed said they expected some of their colleagues to leave as their programs shrink.
Khalil Dokhanchi, a professor of political science who has been at the university for 25 years, said that he has “absolutely no idea what this means for me,” but that he plans to stay on.
“They’re saying that poor, working-class students can’t make decisions because there are too many choices. It’s offensive,” he said.
“This is a huge mistake and a good indicator of why faculty members should be involved in these decisions.”
Many students, too, were upset that they weren’t warned in advance.
“If the school wished to help us graduate on time they should hire more advisors to help students,” Matthew McCoshen, a junior majoring in political science and history, wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
The university’s chancellor, Renee Wachter, said on Wednesday that relatively few students will be affected by the move.
“When we look at the percentage of students who were majoring in the suspended departments, it was around 3 percent — 1 percent if you exclude the seniors,” she said.
“To a great extent, students have already given their voice,” she said, by not choosing those majors.
She and Jackie Weissenburger, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said faculty members have been involved for some time in examining departments’ enrollment and graduation rates.
Over the summer, the provost convened a task force made up of faculty, staff, and administrators to study ways to create what are known as guided pathways.
Part of the Conversation
The idea is to streamline the curricula so that students are less likely to go off course and take many more credits than they need to graduate on time. Structured or guided pathways have become a popular part of the conversation around college completion and have been promoted by groups including Complete College America and Columbia University’s Community College Research Center.
The task force that met over the summer identified departments in which students were taking far too many credits and recommended that their chairs be notified so they could take steps to fix the problem. It also recommended eliminating some minors and concentrations, but no majors were targeted for cuts.
Faculty members were also deeply involved in an academic-prioritization process back in 2012, when Wisconsin’s public universities were suffering severe budget cuts.
The provost said that no one is eager to repeat that process, in which departments spent months plugging in data on graduation rates, enrollments, and other metrics to make a case why their departments should continue.
“I heard horror story after horror story about infighting and people pitting one program against another, even blaming admissions people for not recruiting enough students” to their programs, she said.
While the voices of dissent might be the loudest, “I’ve had others say: ‘Thank you for handling it this way. I don’t want to go through what we went through’” before.
Terri Kronzer, a professor of educational leadership, participated in the 2012 academic-prioritization process and agreed it was stressful. Her department suffered cuts and some of her colleagues left.
She feels that the program was rushed and that faculty members weren’t given enough input into the criteria used to evaluate programs. The cuts the administration made bore little resemblance to the task force’s findings, some faculty members have argued.
“When you have a process that looks like people have input but they really don’t, that’s even more demoralizing,” said Ms. Kronzer, who serves as chair of the university’s Faculty Senate.
Mr. Notbohm also served on the 2012 task force. Faculty members weren’t crazy about the exercise, which he said was dictated to them, but “compared to what happened yesterday, that was an amazing process,” he said. “At least we had an opportunity to share our thoughts, even if they didn’t agree with us.”
Departments with few majors and low graduation rates should be given an opportunity to improve rather than simply having their majors suspended, he said.
“This round is decimating much of our social sciences,” he said.
Ms. Weissenburger said the administration has been meeting with department heads for the past several years, working on the shortcomings that were uncovered in the prioritization process.
Some still aren’t convinced. Sydney Kloster, a senior majoring in political science and writing, described the cuts as arbitrary and destructive. She posted an online petition on Wednesday challenging the suspensions.
“I see this as the first step towards changing this school into something more like a trade school,” she wrote in an email. “They are not firing professors but instead hoping that they will leave on their own with no students to teach.”