May 16th, 2018

Weight Management for Universities: Evaluating Academic Bloat


academic programs

In April 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education introduced a regular feature called “Campus Cuts.” In its first two months, the column recorded plans from more than 50 universities and colleges to restructure, reorganize, and downsize, including closing academic programs.

Historically, new academic programs have often been introduced by several mechanisms. An energetic faculty member is inspired to create a new major, a donor bequest stipulates the development of an interdisciplinary institute, a president mandates a “visionary” curriculum, or a dean or provost responds to a sudden market opportunity. After initial success, the faculty member retires, the president moves to a new institution, or the market changes, and the new program, launched with such enthusiasm, becomes less and less viable, limping along with little administrative or faculty support. The number of students dwindles and the curriculum stagnates. While there are lessons in this parable for everyone from advancement officers and presidents to deans and faculty senates, in times of economic prosperity such programs are often unobserved. The few students and faculty engaged in them may be passionate about these programs’ value, but no one else is looking at them very closely.

The current economic climate has caused universities to rethink their academic programs and to identify ways to close some programs, either for budgetary reasons or because a new strategic plan is creating a new direction and the university must “disinvest” in order to find funds for new initiatives.

So what is a dean or provost to do? What criteria should he or she use to evaluate programs? What processes are optimal for ensuring a successful reorganization? What are the most common mistakes?

First, a university with a clear mission, vision, and strategic plan is in the strongest position faced with this situation. A strong sense of university identity allows easier identification of programs that were born out of mission creep and no longer serve the college.

Second, a college with periodic academic program review, either the multiyear cycle utilized by many state systems or the regular cycle of external degree-related and/or regional accreditation, can help identify programs that are no longer serving students effectively.

Unfortunately, however, current economic pressures do not necessarily allow the evaluation of troubled programs to wait until the next review cycle. So what process and criteria should be used?

Robert C. Dickeson’s Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance(2010) is a very useful resource for any academic leader faced with this problem. Dickeson strongly recommends, first, that every program be reviewed simultaneously, from the botany minor to the women’s golf program, since the long-term goal is a well-balanced and strategic university. Second, he emphasizes the importance of obtaining the support of the president, the chief financial and academic officers, and the governing board before beginning a large-scale evaluation of programs.

While it is easy to see the wisdom of these recommendations, most colleges and universities have hundreds of programs, so the logistics of such an undertaking are overwhelming, especially if the economic crisis and the need for budget cuts are immediate. So is it possible to develop a process that is more surgical in its approach and relies on available information and data to zoom in on specific academic programs? Can programs be evaluated within only one school or college within the institution? What is necessary for success?

The dean concerned about closing academic programs needs the following: 1) the support of the provost and president to undertake the review, 2) a process that is fair and transparent, 3) criteria based on existing data, and 4) a communication plan.

1) Support 

Any dean knows which of his or her programs are struggling, and the provost probably is aware of them too. In order to successfully evaluate programs, the dean must have the support of the provost. It is the provost’s responsibility to ensure that the president and board are aware that programs are being examined, thus preparing them for the inevitable outcry from current students and alumni if a decision is later made to suspend admission or to discontinue offering a major. In fact, it is most helpful to the dean if the provost has mandated that all academic deans review “weak” programs, defined, for example, as all those that graduate fewer than five students a year.

The symptoms of weakness are self-evident to any experienced dean: Such programs have small numbers of majors, they graduate relatively few students a year, and courses are frequently canceled because of low enrollment. They may also suffer from poor student advising and retention. Yet, a small number of majors is not in itself a sign of weakness. For example, physics typically attracts few majors, but physics provides vital service courses to biology majors, and for colleges where general education requires a lab science, physics is typically less expensive to offer than biology, for example. Other signs of weakness can include poor faculty productivity and internal conflict, but the wise dean will not include these in the evaluation criteria!

2) The process

There are essentially two kinds of processes: one “hard” and one “soft.” A hard process assumes the program will be eliminated. Union contracts, governance documents, senate bylaws, and system policies all may include provisions for program elimination. However, since the dean is attempting to discover whether any programs should be considered for formal elimination, a soft process—that is, an out-of-cycle academic program review that has been triggered by the provost’s mandate—is preferable. It is designed to collect the information about whether a given degree or program should be considered for formal elimination. This is a vital step in consciousness, raising the university community’s awareness of the need for change.

An effective evaluation process consists of a task force, a set of “first principles” or “charge,” and a timeline. Why not a committee? Depending on the institutional culture and governance process, a committee may imply representation from every constituency. The role of the committee member therefore is to be an advocate for his or her constituents. The task force, by contrast, implies a defined term and responsibility (or “charge”) and can consist of a mix of academic community members, including students. The size of the task force is important. Kept small, it can be nimble and is more likely to be able to make decisions. If too small, it cannot provide for smaller work groups. Most important, however, is the charge; for example, “By date X, the task force is to provide the dean with a report on academic degree programs according to the following criteria.” Note that there is a fixed date and clear criteria, and the task force does not recommend elimination, closure, or any other step. The emphasis should be on the fact that the data will speak for themselves, and it is the administration, following whatever formal process the university requires, that will make the decision about the future of the programs reviewed and ensure that the needs of students will be met, first and foremost. This frees the task force members to really grapple with the data as university citizens, protecting them from lobbying or even potential bullying.

3) Criteria

The famous KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle is very important in identifying criteria for program review. A university with a well-established office of institutional research may be able to provide rich, nationally benchmarked data on areas such as income generation, costs per credit hour, internal and external market demand, retention and graduation rates. Not all institutions are so fortunate. In an environment that is primarily focused on teaching, simple metrics of student success—including number of majors, retention from first to second year, and time to degree—may be primary, although the troubled programs may be so small that the data are difficult to obtain. To determine whether these programs are economically sustainable, it is important to be able to calculate income generation, costs per credit hour, and credit hours per faculty. Institutions fortunate enough to participate in the University of Delaware’s National Study of Instructional Costs & Productivity will have data on cost per credit hour and student credit hours per faculty and be able to measure them against those of peer institutions, which can be extraordinarily helpful. Faculty research productivity or admissions selectivity data can also be useful if they can be benchmarked against peer institutions. Often cited as an important criterion is the program’s mission with respect to that of the institution itself. Unfortunately, mission statements are often so vague and generic that any program can claim to be mission-driven!

4) Communication plan

As with strategic planning and external accreditation review, there must be a communication plan that will address all the potential stakeholders at the university. Both the medium and the message depend on the audience. Web pages, the student newspaper, alumni newsletters, the local press, social media, BlackBoard—all are potential sources of clarity and support or misunderstanding and vituperation. At the beginning, the communication plan may need to address only the need for program review, the budgetary situation, and the provost’s mandate. As the process unfolds and the data reveal to the larger community the weakness of some of its degree programs, emphasis may need to be placed on respect for institutional governance procedures and contractual obligations. Critical to avoiding backlash from students, parents, and alumni is the provision for meeting the needs of students currently in the affected programs. A set of frequently asked questions (FAQ) is very helpful in underlining what the task force is charged to accomplish and how and by whom the results of its work will be used. A method for obtaining feedback from various constituents and mechanisms for addressing their concerns through additional FAQs is also important.

Finally, it must be remembered that any out-of-cycle academic program review will trigger anxiety, and that anxiety will increase as the university gets closer to implementing the results of its review process. That transition itself is a very important stage and must be thoughtfully developed.

Although the task of evaluating academic programs and institutions for “bloat”—and closing, merging, or restructuring them as a result—is painful and seems antithetical to the promise of higher education in America, it is increasingly a necessary process, even though savings may not materialize for several years. Decades of systematic disinvestment in higher education, coupled with increased and appropriate demands for accountability, access, and excellence, have brought us to the point where academic leaders will have to carefully assess all our programs, not only for excellence but for fiscal sustainability, and we will need to develop processes by which we can transition into being more focused and nimble institutions.


Reprinted from “Weight Management for Universities: Evaluating Academic Bloat” in Academic Leader 26.8(2010)4,5 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.