Incremental Change — or Glacial Change?

Incremental change, UVA style

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.

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  1. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    You raise excellent points, as does Ms. Dragas’ just issued statement. Thank God these issues at long last are getting out into the open. Now finally debate can be had and support garnered for their solution.

    I also agree with statements raised in earlier posts on this website concerning lack of responsible leadership by State Politicians. Compare the courage of Ms Dargas with the shocking inattention, timidity, or “under the rug pushing” of Virginia’s Political leaders. Their failures are quite shocking.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    If I had to choose between being governed by the current Imperial Clown Show in Richmond and having Dragas appointed Empress for Life, I’d, I’d, I’d ….

    probably move to Maryland.

    As much as people complain about what Dragas did – at least she did something.

  3. saunders Avatar

    Is there any way to know that these programs were not excellent programs, just unpopular? Also, did closing these save any money? It would be interesting to know.

    More important, why did one have to read this on a relatively obscure (no offense) blog. Why did the board not make sure this was well known in advance. I am still not sure it justifies firing Sullivan, but at a university, particularly a public one, there should be public knowledge and public discussion. Perhaps the board did not feel that anyone else was important? Perhaps they did not want the screaming and whining that comes along with providing information to stakeholders/constituents/customers? Whatever else happens this board has proven that they should not be trusted with a great public university. They have to go!

    1. “Why did one have to read this on a relatively obscure (no offense) blog?”

      Not only is this discussion not occurring at UVa, it’s not occurring anywhere in Virginia… at least not publicly. Other than the rare op-ed piece from an out-of-state contributor and the wonks at SCHEV, nobody is talking about these issues. Higher ed isn’t talking about them because grappling with them would cause too much heartburn.

      When other boards of visitors look at what happened at UVa, what lessons do you think they will draw? Well, hopefully, they’ll learn to handle the resignation of popular presidents better. But they’ll also see the ferocious pushback from a faculty and administration invested in the status quo. Most visitors are political appointees. Why make waves? Why not go along to get along? Why raise issues that just make people uncomfortable?

      1. saunders Avatar

        Killing programs and departments is a tough thing to talk about because it rarely saves money and no one knows what we is needed next. (And because anyone who enjoys killing the things people love is probably a psychopath. I am not saying it is not necessary on occasion, but it should never be fun.) A more important issue that has come up is online education which is discussed constantly among faculty in a desperate attempt to try to figure out how to make it work reasonably before they are forced by people who think it sounds cool to do it anyway. The WSJ article that was being passed around by the BOV is a short, shallow, well-balanced article on the topic ( If you want to see more just look at any issue of the Chronicle or any issue of any journal devoted to college teaching.

        1. Interesting. I discussed that same op-ed on this blog: “Ready or Not, Here Comes the Higher Ed Online Revolution.” I predicted that career colleges, with their flexible, profit-driven business models, would exploit the technology to gain market share against traditional rivals. After witnessing the events at UVa, I stand by that prediction.

  4. We don’t want “glacial change.” We want a rapid meltdown followed by flooding of coastal areas!

    I’d like to point out that small master’s programs use very few resources because the faculty are fully occupied teaching undergraduates. So killing off an MA program in linguistics hardly saves a nickel, and graduate classes in linguistics are also taken by students in English, anthropology, and education.

    This post raises non issues. The big savings would come by canning a lot of inter-collegiate athletics, student services administrators, and the several hundred deanlets.

    1. You’re probably right — in the grand scheme of things, the resources devoted to these programs was probably pretty minimal. What’s scary, though, is that the university establishment can barely motivate itself to eliminate these marginal programs. What chance is there that it will make the tough decisions involving programs with larger constituencies?

  5. An addendum. The linebacker coach at UVa makes $350,000 a year shouting “Yo, Billy! Hit him harder!” The guy who chucks out the B-balls at practice makes more than the highest paid English professor. If you took away all the scholarships and all the coaches from a killer sport like lacrosse you’d support all the programs being mocked above–and just as many more. And people are worried that UVa isn’t making a profit off of East Asian Studies as an MA program. Jesus wept.

    1. I agree with what you say about UVa sports. It sets the wrong tone to have football and basketball coaches make more money than even the brightest academic superstars. But I will say this, at least football and basketball pay their own way. They generate revenues that subsidize other sports. They aren’t sucking revenues out of other programs. Eliminate football and basketball, and you won’t free up resources for anyone else — you just lose the animating spirit behind Wahoo tribal identity and loyalty.

  6. larryg Avatar

    I would say that “tone” is a hilarious understatement given the perversion of “sport” on “academics” while we piously blather on about the “classics” and “traditional” Ed rather than online.

    I suppose I could be overstating here, eh?

  7. The abomination of corrupt professional sports masquerading as amateur athletics is so entrenched it probably isn’t worth talking about. It’s like arguing against slavery to the plantation owners in 1830 Georgia–most people just don’t get it.

    I’m not, however, alarmed by the failure to kill a small graduate program in linguistics. First of all, the benefits probably outweigh the savings, which will be miniscule. Second, in some top ranked research PhDs 5 graduates in a year would be a bumper crop. The PhD Program in English at Johns Hopkins hardly ever has 5-grads in a year. This isn’t like McDonald’s–nobody’s counting the number of burgers coming off the line.

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