Belcher announces program cuts, 3 programs saved

[Note from the Editor: We will update this story as more program directors become available for comment.]

Chancellor David Belcher announced on Thursday, July 18, which programs recommended for discontinuation by the program prioritization recommendation list would be axed.

 Out of the original 13, Belcher decided that the bachelor’s in German; master’s programs in health and physical education, mathematics, mathematics education, music, music education and two different master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages; and a minor in women’s studies would be phased for discontinuation immediately.

The bachelor’s in motion picture and television production, now known as film and television production, Spanish and Spanish education will continue. The directors of these three programs must address the points made by the task force with action plans to strengthen development.

“I have explored quality indicators,” said Belcher to Western Carolina University’s Office of Public Relations. “I have considered the degree to which programs and their owners – faculty, coordinators, department heads – have been thoughtfully proactive, before the advent of program prioritization, in recruitment and retention efforts, and the degree to which they have been successful. I have explored the differences between need in the region and actual demand for Western Carolina’s programs. And, I have wrestled with potential impact of program loss.”

After graduation in May, a task force, co-chaired by associate professor Vicki Szabo and the late Provost Angi Brenton, who was replaced by Mark Lord, released a list that graded all of the programs offered at WCU. Programs given a one were regarded as outstanding and to be considered for additional funding. Programs listed as a two need to address internal problems but did not qualify for discontinuation, which was listed as a three. Quite a number of programs were listed as a three, but some decided to voluntarily discontinue. During the month of June and into July, Belcher looked at and met with directors to further look at the 13 programs that wanted to fight the cut.

Many professors and program directors were skeptical as to how accurate the prioritization list was, and a few strongly spoke up about their disbelief to see their program with a rating of three.

Jack Sholder of the film and television production program said in a recent interview with The Western Carolinian, “My belief is that the chancellor understands more about our worth than the committee did.”

In his case, Sholder was correct as his program will continue. Belcher said in a statement to the Office of Public Relations that while there are high costs involved with film and television production, “impressive quality indicators” saved the program.

“I got a better night’s sleep than I did the night before,” said Sholder. “What I particularly appreciate is the way the Chancellor handled this, that he said why he kept the program. I think that Belcher handled this very graciously.”

However, other directors who argued for their programs a few weeks ago received unfortunate news on Thursday.

Dr. Laura Wright, head of the English department, fought for her two master’s programs in teaching English to speakers of other languages, also known as TESOL. In the report, the program fell under a three because the “program does not serve sufficient student populations or demands and does not demonstrate positive enrollment patterns.”

“Our graduate TESOL program is rigorous, and the placement rate for our TESOL graduates is nearly 100 percent,” Wright said in an interview before Belcher’s announcement.

When Wright met with Belcher, she explained how new the program is to WCU and reiterated how many graduates find jobs after graduation.

“When [Belcher] met with me, he told me up front that he hadn’t made any decisions, and I believe him,” said Wright. “He sent me an email this past Saturday [July 6] asking for more information, so it’s very clear to me that he’s taking these decisions seriously, and we all appreciate that. . . I think we have to trust him to make the decisions that he feels are in the best interests of the institution, the students and the region. I feel very strongly that TESOL serves those constituencies; I hope he agrees.”

Sadly, Belcher did not agree, even with the recent addition of an undergraduate TESOL program at WCU. Although Wright said that her TESOL students were not only placed in jobs abroad but also in the local community of WNC, her program did not survive the chopping block. She reasoned that it could be because her program is newer and continued to say that because of its recent addition, the program should have been given a chance.

“I have appreciated the task force’s process to make the decisions that it has, and I know that these decisions weren’t lightly made,” said Wright before Chancellor Belcher’s recent announcement. “I trust that the task force has made sound decisions based on the materials that it reviewed, and I certainly hope that we’re given the opportunity to keep the program going. TESOL is a very new program – by far the newest graduate program on the list – and we feel that it’s too early to pull the plug on it.”

“Western Carolina University cannot be all things to all people,” Belcher said in a statement to the Office of Public Relations. “It never could, but the economic climate of the last five years and the resulting budget reductions have made this fact, too often ignored, a blatant reality. Our university must focus, ensuring that it does not diffuse its efforts and resources, both fiscal and human, in so many directions that the institution jeopardizes the quality of all of its programs.”

Students and alumni have already rallied on social networking websites, like Facebook, to voice their complaints about losing the 10 programs Belcher decided to cut. In less than an hour, the breaking news status on The Western Carolinian’s Facebook page had acquired multiple comments and shares.

“A very sad day for Western,” said an alumni on The Western Carolinian’s Facebook page. “As alum, I have taken pride in my education at WCU. My background is in mathematics education, and I have been proud to support students that have chosen WCU for educations majors. . . Looks like my students may need to look elsewhere for music and mathematics.”

“Even if it is master’s programs that are being cut, it is important that we value these education programs,” said former student Matthew Cord Scott. “Teachers are the future of the world. Why would we not want master’s and doctorate programs for education of all kinds in our universities? This is a huge mistake.”

“Wow, cutting the mathematics and health and physical education programs?” said another user. “Agreed, education-focused programs not valued will translate [in]to ineffective teachers. Especially since WCU has such a strong history as a teacher’s college!”

“Sounds like another down grade for ol’ WCU!” posted a female user.

While program cuts may be necessary because of the national economic plight, program directors still felt that the task force’s prioritization list was inaccurate.

Marilyn Chamberlin, whose minor program in women’s studies was cut, said in a recent interview with The Western Carolinian, “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.”

Chamberlin continued that the cut of women’s studies greatly hurts the University because not only is there a lack of the support in gender issues on campus, particularly after the loss of the Women’s Center, but also because of the lack nationwide.

“To say that we are dedicated to women students and students of varying identities is more challenging, I think,” said Chamberlin.

With the confirmed loss of women’s studies, faculty and students must wonder how the University will handle and provide for gender issues on campus.

Mark Couture, associate professor in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages, fought for the bachelor’s programs in Spanish and Spanish education. According to the report, the Spanish bachelor’s program “does not demonstrate positive enrollment patterns, unlike several regional peers, and there is no realistic potential that negative aspects of this program can be overcome. The Task Force encourages the Chancellor to proceed with an institutional needs analysis leading to a more effective means of offering a range of language opportunities for our students.” The report gave the same reasoning for the bachelor’s in Spanish education.  

Couture, too, felt that the task force could have made better recommendations.

“The committee was given a difficult task, and one that is not peculiar to WCU,” said Couture. “Program prioritization is being undertaken throughout the UNC system. They made tough decisions after looking at both hard data and qualitative narratives. But personally, I don’t agree with all of their recommendations.”

Couture was also disheartened by part II of the report, which gave greater insight into why programs were rated as they were and how data was assessed.

“I was understandably disappointed, given that the report recommends that all the degree programs in our department be discontinued,” said Couture. “My opinion is that a university that values cultural diversity and international awareness should support the study of foreign languages and cultures at an advanced level, and that denying students this opportunity is doing them a disservice.

“The Spanish major gives students the opportunity to learn another language and to study in-depth the cultures of the Spanish-speaking world,” continued Couture. “Knowledge of other languages and cultures is not only valuable for its own sake but also gives us a better perspective of our own culture. From a purely pragmatic point of view, Spanish is valuable as an ancillary degree and can give job seekers an advantage whatever may happen to be their primary discipline. Currently, there are 36 students seeking a bachelor’s in Spanish, but nearly 150 students have declared a Spanish minor.”

Ultimately, Belcher agreed with Couture’s opinions and saved both Spanish programs. He cited that the programs offered great value because “of the burgeoning Latino population in the region and state, and the potential for those programs to be responsive to applied needs in the region,” according to WCU’s Office of Public Relations.

According to part II of the program prioritization recommendation report, there were “two primary challenges” that caused concern for the task force.

“First, much of the data provided by the Office of Institutional Planning and Effectiveness (OIPE) and the Registrar was unavailable at the program level,” stated the report. “The department, rather than the program, was frequently the unit of review in our assembled data; only retention and graduation data were available at the program level. This deficiency made precise and consistent analysis more difficult, particularly given the broad range of programs considered in our prioritization effort. In most cases, the narrative statements provided important program-level context for quantitative metrics.

“Second, the unavailabity of data measuring quality outcomes, particularly in the areas of teaching and scholarship, limited the scope of our review,” continued the report.

The report suggested that for “future program prioritizations” that task forces should look at various other data, such as “program-level funding of financial data, program-level records of faculty contributions, clarification of student status (part time/full time status)” and “program learning objectives.”

Szabo wanted to reiterate that the prioritization process is not over.

When asked if the task force was successful, she said, “In the sense that we accomplished the task was given in the time frame that was set before us, yes. The process, as I noted, is not complete.”

In her position as co-chair, Szabo was very hands-on in the process, especially after Provost Brenton stepped down because of her ailing health in April, a month before the release of part I of the report.

“I volunteered to serve on the task force but was recommended to be co-chair. As co-chair, I did much of the writing and organization of communications with campus, I set meeting agendas and facilitated task force discussions,” said Szabo. “We played one part in a very long-term process that is still ongoing. I’m not sure what I might have changed, since prioritization is ongoing. I’m sure the next committee or task force that takes on this process will do things differently, but that will be a different group, perhaps with access to different data.”

For now, Belcher’s cut programs will turn over to “inactive” status and will not allow any new students to enroll within those disciplines. Students currently in the programs will have the option of “teach out” in order to continue pursuing their degree, or WCU will help them find a different program or even a different institution at which to continue their education. Still, the loss is difficult to process. Furthermore, the three programs who survived the cuts now must face how to better themselves and try to overcome the backlash of being rated a three by the task force.

“What I’m concerned about now is the damage done to our good name,” said Sholder. “I’m concerned about restoring our reputation.”

Sholder also said that he and his staff have worked hard for nine years to build up the program and hope that whatever negative publicity came from the low rating can be fought with positive publicity, like receiving the camera gift from Sony Corp.

The program prioritization is not a process limited to Western Carolina. According to the Office of Public Relations, this process is occurring at most campuses in the UNC system, like UNC-Greensboro and Appalachian State University. Belcher’s decisions “are subject to approval of the University of North Carolina system. Western Carolina also must follow specific guidelines required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, WCU’s official regional accrediting agency,” according to the Office of Public Relations.

For more information and a link to where you can read the two reports, go to and check out The Western Carolinian’s original story at