“Don’t cut my program!”

Western Carolina University recently released a program prioritization recommendation list that categorized all of its academic programs by looking at several numerical factors.

On the list, eight programs were recognized as excellent and to be considered for additional funding, five were recommended to implement an action plan to better their program, and 13 are marked for Chancellor David Belcher to consider discontinuing the program.

Programs listed for possible discontinuation are a minor in women’s studies, a minor in broadcast sales, a bachelor’s in German, a bachelor’s in Spanish and Spanish education, a bachelor’s in motion picture and television production, a master’s in mathematics and mathematics education, a master’s in music and music education, a master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and a master’s in health and physical education. These programs were described by the report as “. . . showed weak quantitive data and/or worsening trends, coupled with qualitive narratives that did not clearly articulate connections with WCU’s mission or strategic plan. . .”

The report was compiled by a large task force, co-chaired by the late Provost Angi Brenton. Mark Lord, interim associate provost and professor, took over to work alongside co-chair Vicki Szabo, Dean of the Honors College Brian Railsback, several professors and three student representatives, John Baley, Jannidy Gonzalez and Hannah Wallis-Johnson. The task force looked at five years of data, which coincided with the development and usage of Banner, according to the report. Directors of bachelor’s programs were asked to provide a list of data points along with a 600-word essay about the program. Data points included numbers for majors enrolled, cost of the program, degrees awarded, and retention and graduation rates. Minor programs were asked to compile data that looked at the number of students enrolled and the number of graduates at the end of each term along with a 600-word statement.

Some directors found the process of compiling the list inefficient and were shocked to see their program on the discontinued or needing an action plan list. In the next phase, directors will plead their case to Belcher as to why he should not discontinue their program.

Thomas Salzman, director of the School of Stage & Screen, faces the need to create an action plan for the bachelor’s in stage and screen. He stated that he was “very surprised” to see the program on the list “because this program is the least expensive program to deliver in our School, and it has shown good growth since its redesign in 2009. . . I believe that the conclusions reached by the committee for the degree programs in our School were misguided. . . We are taking this very seriously.”

While Salzman will not make a presentation to Belcher for the bachelor’s in stage and screen, he is concerned about another program in his School.

“They actually did not cite a weakness, in fact. They said, ‘Stage & Screen is a unique program that prepares students broadly for entertainment fields, as compared to other programs at peer institutions.’ However, they still want us to eliminate the film aspect of our program. We totally disagree since that is one of the unique aspects of this program as opposed to the other BA theater degrees in the state system,” said Salzman. “We believe passionately about all of our programs at the School of Stage & Screen. In the past five years, we have grown the School from 127 majors to 174 majors last year, and we believe that growth is because of our integration of Theatre and Film. If allowed, we intend to continue to grow this strong and unique program.”

The motion picture and television production [MPTP] program in the School of Stage & Screen was categorized as a three, or recommended for discontinuation, by the task force. In the report, the cause for this category is explained as the program “. . . serves a limited student population with below average graduation rates, but high and continued cost commitments. The Task Force noted some accomplishments of this program, but concluded that it was not essential to WCU’s mission.”

Director of the program, Jack Sholder, was “literally astonished” by the categorization. He argued that the committee did not have enough information to make a more informed decision due to the process they choose in order to create the list of recommendations.

“My only conclusion is that I felt they were misinformed,” said Sholder. “We were an expensive program at one point . . . but in the last five or six years, our costs per student have gone down 50 percent. The national average has gone up 50 percent, so we’re pretty much in line with the national average. We’ve almost doubled our enrollment with the same faculty.

“My belief is that the chancellor understands more about our worth than the committee did. We’re not a stand-alone program. We interact with a lot of other programs,” said Sholder, listing interactions with musical theatre, theatre, music, art and film studies programs.

Sholder believes that the numbers do not speak for themselves, which led to a three categorization for the program.

“I think there’s a misperception. There’s the one perception that we’re too expensive, which we’re not. The other perception is that we’re an elitist program, which trains kids to go out to Hollywood,” said Sholder. “That’s not what we’re doing at all. Digital literacy, visual literacy is kind of where it’s at now. Where you get your information now is on a computer screen or an iPad or on your cell phone, and a lot of that is visual information. We are the purveyor of visual information on campus. The whole center of what we do is visual storytelling.

“We do an enormous amount of community interaction,” continued Sholder. “We do half a dozen community-based documentaries every year. We’ve done one on Meals on Wheels . . . the public library, animal shelters. We did one for Full Spectrum Farms. I think we’ve done something like 90 of these. So, as far as QEP [Quality Enhancement Plan] goes, we’re as QEP as you can get.”

If Belcher does decide to discontinue the bachelor’s in MPTP, Sholder and Salzman wondered what would happen to the name and purpose of the School.

“We’re the School of Stage & Screen,” said Sholder. “We wouldn’t do much for the ‘Screen’ part if we weren’t around. . . It would destroy the School of Stage & Screen. . . I would argue that we are central to the mission of the University, without doubt central to the mission of the College of the Fine and Performing Arts. We touch every aspect of it.”

Andrew Dyson, a student in the program, plans to graduate with his bachelor’s in May of 2014. His reaction to hearing the news of possible discontinuation was one of hurt and surprise.

“If WCU canceled my major today, I would hope to be able to finish and get my diploma,” said Dyson. “I would not be interested at all in changing to something similar. I’m an out-of-state student. I could have gotten something similar in South Carolina, and saved about $70,000 in the process, but I came to WCU because of the uniqueness of the program.

“The tricky part of making a list of majors that ‘deserve’ to be cut is accurately judging which ones belong on that list,” continued Dyson. “As a student, not once did any of the task force committee members come in and observe a class or ask any of the students about how they feel about their major. It makes me terribly disappointed in how this effort was carried out.”

Erin Wagoner graduated from the program in May 2010 then continued her academic career at New York University. She received her master’s in dramatic writing in May 2012. She, too, spoke out about the unfairness of the situation.

“I think it’s heartbreaking. The MPTP program is an amazing opportunity for students who might never have a chance to get a degree like this. To be frank, most kids at WCU can’t afford a famous ‘art school’ with a fancy film program. It might be cheesy, but WCU’s MPTP offers students, like myself, a creative and artistic opportunity in film that they simply would not be able to have if it wasn’t for WCU. This program is a gem and frankly, I think it’s incredibly heartless to discontinue the program,” said Wagoner. “I owe everything about my little successes right now to Terry Curtis Fox and the MPTP program. I’ll always be immensely grateful for that program, and it breaks my heart to think other students won’t be given the chance to have the experiences I had.”

Another program on the chopping block is a minor in women’s studies.

According to the report, “There is no realistic potential that negative aspects of this program, including curricular obstacles and program management issues, can be overcome.” It also suggested “. . . a more effective means of providing Gender Studies opportunities to our students.”

Dr. Marilyn Chamberlin runs the minor as part of larger programs in anthropology and sociology.

“Our numbers were not high. It’s an interdisciplinary program that is a stand-alone minor,” said Chamberlin on if she was surprised to see the program on the discontinued list. “I thought that more of the outreach and advocacy that the program does campus-wide would have been taken into consideration, and apparently, it was not by the committee. And, they were clear about that when we were told we had received a three, and therefore had to go through the appeals process for the second phase. . . .At that point, I realized that all they were looking at were primarily numbers, and they didn’t really have a lot of data points to look at for the minors. So, it did not surprise me. I think it surprised several of my colleagues more than it surprised me.”

Chamberlin, like Sholder, felt that the list was inaccurate.

“I think that many of the programs on the list [for discontinuation] focus on elements that go beyond what they do in the classroom, and I don’t think that was taken into consideration. I think that’s why this third stage of appeal [to Belcher] is really important, so that that can be presented at a higher level. . . I think the process had some things that were limiting to it, and there are some programs that were more sensitive to those limits than others. . . I think we got caught with low numbers at this point in time, and that’s what we were evaluated on.

“I think that we are in a climate that is exploring the direction the University wants to go,” continued Chamberlin, “and I think that, again, because the committee did not look at the campus-wide impact of removing programs, I think that is where it was not addressed. Those elements that were presented to the committee were obviously not the elements that were necessary for this kind of evaluation.”

Chamberlin pointed out some of the double standards she and other faculty noticed through the report, including that low numbers does not automatically equal receiving a three categorization.

“There are other programs that went through the prioritization process that have less [number of majors] than we do, and they are not being discontinued,” said Chamberlin. “You will see that there are programs that are referred to as ‘very small but. . .’ Definitely read the report. It’s fascinating reading!”

This is not the first time Chamberlin has experienced a program prioritization recommendation. When former lists were formed, programs were cut, so she and her staff are taking the list seriously.

“The approach that I’m taking is that I’m not disagreeing that the program has some areas that need to be adjusted, especially because this is the first time it has ever been through this process,” said Chamberlin. “I would like to stress to [Belcher] that an action plan would be a more suitable avenue to go than just discontinuation.”

If Belcher were to cut the women’s studies minor, Chamberlin fears that not only would the students who are in the program suffer, but Western Carolina as a whole would miss out on various enrichment.

“I think that what the University loses is the ability to say we are committed to women and gender issues on our campus when we no longer have a stand-alone Women’s Center that we had four years ago. . . To say that we are dedicated to women students and students of varying identities is more challenging, I think,” said Chamberlin. “What that means is that we lack the ability to fully address the needs of inequalities that are felt by women and gender minorities and to prepare them for what they will experience in the world, because we are still not an equal society in the area of gender by any means.”

Chamberlin, Sholder and other directors of programs will argue their cases to Belcher in the coming weeks of this month.

When The Western Carolinian interviewed Belcher about the report, he had yet to read the entire report. Unlike the concerns raised by the faculty, Belcher strongly praised the caliber of the task force.

“We had a very good, very strong faculty committee that worked on it,” said Belcher. “They put together a set of metrics that they used to push all the programs through, and I trust that they’ve done a really good job at looking at all of those issues. My guess is that if there are programs on this list, then there are at least issues that need to be looked at in each of these programs. That’s really all I can say not having read the reports.

“I don’t know all the programs very well. . . I don’t know that had I any preconceived notions of which programs would be strong and which not,” continued Belcher. “I mean, I’ve heard talk from time to time of programs that didn’t have as much enrollment as perhaps they ought to have. . . The numbers and those kinds of issues are really a provost’s position and job, and Provost Angi Brenton was a leader in getting this process going through. I just have to make the final decision.”

Belcher gave some frank truth about how higher education will look during the current financial crisis.

“. . .We have to focus the University,” said Belcher. “We just can’t do everything, and that’s part of it. We don’t have the financial resources to do everything, and if we keep trying to do everything and the budget cuts that are being discussed right now come down, we can just make everybody mediocre. . . We have sustained one cut after another, and we simply don’t have the resources.”

Belcher said that he does not know if he will cut even one program, however, tensions within faculty members are high as they prepare to fight to protect their undergraduate and graduate programs. To keep the faculty informed, Belcher, Lord, Szabo and Beth Lofquist held a fourth faculty forum on June 5 in the University Center Theater. In the forum, the four reiterated the prioritization process, discussed Belcher’s final decision and explained the steps already taken, like sending letters to students in possible discontinued programs. Then, the faculty was given an opportunity to ask questions that were not program specific.

Dr. Laura Wright, head of the English department, asked if a discontinued program takes students longer than two years to complete, would the students be given the opportunity to continue.

“I think it depends on the feasibility on truncating,” answered Lofquist. “Part of teaching out and part of taking care of a program, too, is sometimes advising students elsewhere if it’s too long. Now, what is too long? I don’t know the answer to that question.

“Obviously, once decisions are made and once the Chancellor has made his final decisions, then. . . there are other things that have to happen,” continued Lofquist. “Programs that are slated for discontinuation will first go inactive, and they’ll go inactive because we need to teach out those students. How do we do that? We’ll be meeting with individual teams of people that represent the departments in the programs in the college to develop individual plans of teach-out.”

Another professor asked, “So, you said that numbers of students enrolled is a very important number, but that number represents a financial decision that you’re assuming low enrolled programs are expensive. . . Some of them cost almost nothing in that there are no courses specifically to those small enrolled – that all the courses are already being taught for other purposes. Would that be a consideration, like if we have a low enrolled program that has one or two students in it, but we have very little investment in terms of faculty time to those students, that they’re already taking classes that are being taught already?”

“Yes, I’d be open to any kind of argument that you want to make on that basis,” answered Belcher. “While there are financial issues certainly at stake here, that’s not the only thing that’s part of the focus concept. . . I certainly don’t want you to hear me saying that you are wrong in talking about the financial part. You’re not, but it’s not the only aspect of focus.”

Other faculty members asked teasing questions to Belcher about what is the best way to present their arguments in order to better guarantee a positive outcome.

“Well, I can give you one way that I’m not convinced, and that’s chocolate. I’m not a chocolate fan,” joked Belcher.

To wrap up the meeting, Belcher stressed that this process is not a punishment to any department, program or faculty member. The hammer is falling on programs across the nation.

“I think this should influence how we look at curriculum here,” said Belcher, “and let me say, I hope you don’t hear what I’m saying as fussing at you. I think we’re just in a huge paradigm shift. This is not germane to the Western Carolina University only. This is across higher education, across the country, and certainly across the state of North Carolina.”

Part two of the final report will come out at the end of June with Belcher making his final decisions by the middle of the summer. Lord and the rest of the task force highly recommend reading and commenting on the report located at http://www.wcu.edu/about-wcu/leadership/office-of-the-provost/program-prioritization/. A feedback box is in the right corner of the webpage where students, faculty, staff, parents and community members can leave feedback, with one’s name or anonymously, about the report.

If you are an undergraduate student affected by a possible discontinued program and have questions, contact the Office of the Provost at vcacademicaffairs@wcu.edu. If you are a graduate student affected by a possible discontinued program, contact the Graduate School at grad@wcu.edu.