by James A. Bacon
Many University of Virginia stakeholders have worked themselves into a righteous froth over the idea of privileged, out-of-touch political appointees on the Board of Visitors imposing their brand of corporate-style restructuring upon Mr. Jefferson’s University. University administrators are the best judges of how to allocate finite resources between competing academic priorities, are they not?
Six programs have been identified for closure at the University of Virginia in the past seven years, according to the “2008-09 Academic Program Productivity/Viability Review” conducted by the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV): graduate programs in bioethics, educational psychology, special education, health and physical education and educational policy studies.
Such steely will and resolve by UVa administrators cannot help but leave outside observers awestruck…. until we learn the particulars. It seems that the doctoral program in educational policy studies had an average of zero full-time-equivalent students over a five-year period and zero graduates, according to SCHEV statistics. The Master’s degree program had an average one yearly graduate over five years.
New question: What took so long?
Curriculum restructuring has surfaced as one of the more controversial issues in the resignation of UVa President Teresa Sullivan. Rector Helen Dragas has been castigated for having the effrontery to suggest that the university needs to move faster in reallocating resources from low-priority programs to high-priority programs. The nerve! How dare Dragas, a plebian developer and builder of houses in Hampton Roads, presume to instruct members of the academy about how to run their organization?
Perhaps it’s because Dragas has seen the same data — probably a lot more, actually — that I have, and she’s drawn the conclusion that the pace of change in academia, when the academics are allowed to move at their own collegial pace, is glacial. In fact, one is justified in wondering if UVa would ever have gotten around to eliminating all six of the aforementioned programs were it not for SCHEV’s prodding.
SCHEV conducts a Program Productivity Review every five years, setting five-year enrollment and graduation goals that are specified for each program based on the type of program and the resources applied to it. SCHEV tracks the number of majors in the program and the number of graduates, and gives credit for non-majors who take classes in the program. Then it yellow flags programs that fall short of some standards and red flags those that flunk every standard. You can search the results for any public Virginia institution here and view UVa specifically here.
Thus, we can see, for instance, that UVa’s bioethics masters degree program averaged one student and one graduate yearly. The university stoically agreed to terminate the program.
But we also see that there are several other marginal programs that have not been shuttered. Asian Studies (five M.A. students, two graduates) failed miserably to meet SCHEV standards yet was never closed. The same can be said of Linguistics (eight M.A. students and five grads), the German and Italian M.A. programs, and many more.
UVa did identify the problems in its graduate education school curricula on its own and voluntarily approached SCHEV to examine which programs should be phased out, said Joseph Defilippo, SCHEV’s director of academic affairs and planning (and, as it happens, a former classics professor at the University of North Dakota). “That was a concerted decision on their part to look at that area and change their offering.”
SCHEV has the authority to shut down severely under-performing programs, but it it’s not dogmatic. Says Defilippo: “The institution has the opportunity to defend a program – if it’s new, or mission critical, or if they’ve taken measures to improve it. We take those factors into account.”
On the basis of the SCHEV review — 35 programs flagged, only six shut down in the past seven years — UVa appears to be determined to preserve most its under-performing degree programs, heedless of the demand for them. Defilippo contrasts colleges that defend their turf to the philosophy displayed at George Mason University, which starts up many new programs and shuts many down. “The greater willingness they have to close them, the more sense it makes for us to be liberal about the ones they want to defend.”
Just remember, SCHEV targets only those programs that are so pathetically small that they are no longer viable. If the decision were made by cruel corporate task masters like Dragas, most of them would have been shut down long ago. The bigger question is how the university should handle the larger laggards and centers of mediocrity. Perhaps some programs should be merged, consolidated and, to borrow another term from the sinister corporate world, downsized. Perhaps the resulting holes in the curriculum could by filled by means of distance learning from other universities that maintain the requisite faculty. I know that’s wild-and-crazy talk but it’s the kind of conversation we need to be having.