Bruce's Blog

Dec. 11, 2009

Please, Bruce, whatever you do, cut whole programs instead of watering down quality through across-the-board cuts.

First, of course, budgeting is done bottom up and not top down. So, these decisions rest where they rightly should: for academic programs, at the departmental and college level. It’s not what kind of decisions I should make but, rather, what decisions we should be making.

Still, I feel protecting quality must be our first priority and that certainly motivates the advice to eliminate programs. And, that is what was done last year. Cuts at the program level varied from 0% to 100%. Even within academic areas, we eliminated specializations and halted implementation of several programs. And, that is what any university worthy of the name is always doing even in reasonable budget times: funds are never sufficient to cover the many needs we serve or to support the creative ideas highly innovative faculty and staff regularly offer. Academic specializations wax and also wane and the needs and interests of those we serve – students, communities – do shift.

It does matter how we make the adjustments, though. And, paradoxically, on the academic side in particular, “concentrating the pain” can do “across-the-board” damage to the programs that remain.

Imagine eliminating an academic major. There are, of course, no immediate savings as we have clear contractual obligations to maintain the major for all currently enrolled students. And, once those students are all gone, we are smaller, we have fewer students. That means revenues (tuition) go down. So, even more cuts have to be made. Or, we stay the same size, meaning the remaining programs become more overburdened, with no additional resources to cover the impacts. One way or the other – further cuts because of tuition loss or more students to be absorbed by the programs that remain – academic quality is still hurt. Across-the-board.

But, that is not what I worry most about when it comes to eliminating programs. Much earlier in my career – it was at Oregon State – we decided upon the “program elimination” route, publicly announced. One-day stories in the media and then it was business as usual in the legislature. But, we could clearly document an immediate decline in admissions, one that took 10 years to overcome. Even though students wanted to major in subjects no university would ever eliminate, the mere perception of academic instability caused students to stay away: if they cut “x,” how do I know they won’t cut my program. Again, “concentrating the pain” did broader damage. And, by the way, the flight of students was largely to out-of-state universities and it was most noticeable among the academically strongest high school graduates.

None of this means we should not consider program eliminations. It does mean that we must proceed very thoughtfully and very carefully. We did eliminate specializations, we did halt program implementations, and we (you through the bottom-up process) did protect quality to the extent possible. There are several examples where cuts were targeted at the weaker programs. Still, how many can name these areas even though every cut is out there and listed on the web? Few, I would imagine simply because – remember the Oregon State example – we did not make a big deal of them. And, such reallocations should happen continually in any healthy, evolving university no matter what the budget.

The “hows” of program elimination must be done with care for another reason. History shows that for some programs, the mere public discussion of program elimination can become a self-fulfilling process: top faculty and students will leave; recruiting strong faculty and students to a program identified as “on the cusp” becomes impossible. So, we have special procedures for program eliminations or major reductions. You helped develop them; they were used last year several times; they will be included among the budget instructions for the current bottom-up process.

Back to the early point. It is not about program eliminations versus across-the-board cuts. It is about protecting quality as our top priority. Consequently, it is certainly true that we must not, have not, and will not simply make across-the-board cuts. But, it does not necessarily follow that dramatic academic program eliminations protects the quality of the remaining academic programs.

And finally, in reading an earlier draft of this blog entry, a colleague suggested that it might be read as taking program cuts “off the table.” Most certainly not. We eliminated programs (I can think of 4) last time around. As we look forward, all of us involved need to consider program cuts very seriously. My purpose in these blog entries is just to prod thinking that goes beyond the level of the superficial or clichéd. If, after serious reflection, major program cuts turn out to be on table (or off), this will be because of the efforts with planning units, by their leaders, with the thinking of the UPRC, and with the leadership of the vice presidents. And, any that do happen will be clearly tied to our top priorities in all budget making: protecting core mission and where, within that mission various options are of equal centrality, protect highest quality.



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