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Board of Trustees discusses process for eliminating degree programs

By Karen Shugart

The ECU Board of Trustees on Sept. 16 talked about the upcoming degree-review process — a discussion that delved into issues of program quality, tight budgets and tenure.

Provost Marilyn Sheerer briefed the board about the process through which administrators across the UNC system will recommend that some programs be cut.

The General Assembly in 1993 directed the Board of Governors to biennially identify programs that are, in the words of the legislation, of “low productivity or low priority or are unnecessarily redundant.”

In 2008, during the most recent review, 266 programs across the UNC system did not meet productivity standards. Most, however, were not cut.

At ECU, three programs were eliminated: educational specialist in counselor education, master’s in music therapy, and certificate of advanced study in library science. One bachelor’s degree, marketing education, was cut. Already enrolled students were allowed to graduate in their program.

Of 22 other programs flagged for low productivity that year, 15 agreed to increase enrollment, six were retained with future low enrollment likely, and one was combined with another program on campus.

The low productivity list, Sheerer told trustees, doesn’t address matters of a program’s quality or student achievement. It simply means that the program didn’t meet a certain threshold in enrollment or graduation numbers.

For bachelor’s degrees, that means programs are to be reviewed if they have awarded fewer than 20 degrees in the last two years, unless upper-division enrollment in the most recent year exceeds 25 or degrees awarded in the most recent year exceeds 10.

The thresholds for master’s, professional and doctoral programs are lower. Newer programs are given time to grow enrollment, and thus aren’t flagged for review.

Department chairs, in consultation with deans, will determine how to respond if their program lands on the list.

If, as if usually the case, they don’t believe the program should be eliminated, they can suggest ways to increase enrollment, offer to combine it with another on-campus program or investigate ways to collaborate with another UNC system institution.

Another option would be to keep the program with low enrollment expected to continue – a practical measure for offerings that are central to the university mission.

Dr. Rick Niswander, dean of the College of Business, pointed out that some programs traditionally on the low-productivity list, such as physics and philosophy, have relatively few students majoring in the subjects. Many students, however, take courses in the departments.

Such programs, Niswander said, have “significant service to the rest of the university, regardless of how many majors they have.”

Eliminating health sciences programs that have been on the low-productivity list would jeopardize the Brody School of Medicine’s accreditation, said Dr. Phyllis Horne, vice chancellor for health sciences.

Enrollment and graduation figures are among several factors that will determine a program’s future, Sheerer said.

“When we talk to the deans, we’re not just talking about numbers,” Sheerer said. “We’re talking about market. We’re talking about the success of the graduates. We’re talking about why they’re continuing to support this program.”

Clarice Cato Goodyear, liaison to ECU from the UNC Board of Governors, said the BOG wishes to sustain unique programs that further institutional missions, such as the ones offered by the medical school and the aviation program at Elizabeth City State University.

“We’re trying to identify signature programs and encourage those programs to be supported, which means, realistically, something has to give,” she said.

Distance education offers the UNC system a way to share resources and cut duplicated programs, Sheerer said.

“UNC Online didn’t happen just for the heck of it,” Sheerer said. “It’s a very deliberate strategy to provide courses and ways that we can tap into resources available from other campuses.”

More difficult, Sheerer said, will be deciding how universities phase out duplicated program or ones that don’t fit institutional missions as well.

“Those are tough questions that I think we’re going to have to begin asking,” she said.

“I don’t think those are tough questions at all,” said William Bodenhamer, a trustee. “You can’t keep studying this thing to death.”

The review comes as the state continues to grapple with budget woes. In the last three budget years, ECU has lost more than $106 million in recurring and non-recurring funds, and budgets are expected to remain tight in coming years.

Cutting degree programs could mean more savings if faculty are cut. When ECU eliminated the master’s music therapy, Sheerer said, faculty members were moved to music education and undergraduate music therapy programs.

The elimination of many programs, however, would raise a thorny question: What to do with displaced tenured faculty?

She said she is waiting to hear from UNC General Administration whether the committee should deal with that question.

Trustee Ken Chalk said, “It seems to me that should be part of the scope.”

Donna Payne, university attorney, said the issue could be dealt with through two processes: financial exigency and program curtailment. The former would likely make credit-rating agencies nervous; the latter would be less radical. But neither process would be easy.

At a recent meeting of provosts, Sheerer said, she asked how many people have eliminated programs with tenured faculty.

“Not one hand went up,” Sheerer said. “So I just want to tell you, first, that we’re not alone in this, that and, until you get into that issue, we can dabble with eliminating certain things, but it’s difficult … how do you integrate program faculty into another area?”

Sheerer said she expects to brief trustees again in the spring.

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This story appeared originally in the Sept. 24, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at http://www.ecu.edu/cs-admin/news/poe/2010/910/September-2010-Archives.cfm.