Bye, bye programs: Belcher explains decision

Western Carolina University is still dealing with the overwhelming news of losing 10 programs. Now, several questions remain like what happens to the cut programs next, and how many students will WCU lose over the cuts?

Chancellor David O. Belcher announced in July the discontinuation of 10 out of 13 programs after receiving a program prioritization recommendation list from a task force, co-chaired by the late Provost Angi Brenton and Vicki Szabo. Programs graded a three were recommended to be discontinued. From that list, Belcher saved the bachelor’s in film and television production, formerly known as the motion picture and television production program, the bachelor’s in Spanish and the bachelor’s in Spanish education. A minor’s in women’s studies; bachelor’s in German; and master’s in health and physical education, mathematics, mathematics education, music, music education and two different master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages received discontinuation notices from Belcher.

Students and alumni were overwhelmed not only by the number of cuts but also how many education programs were axed.

“Big shock that most of the programs are in education,” said a user on The Western Carolinian’s Facebook page. “De-valued across the state.”

“A teacher’s college without mathematics, mathematics education, music and music education…hmm,” posted a male user.

However, Belcher stated that he has received positive, “supportive” feedback to his office.

“All comments have been very supportive,” said Belcher. “Indeed, I’ve heard from several of the leaders associated with programs which I decided should be discontinued and, while disappointed, they expressed confidence in the process and gratitude for being consulted and heard as part of the process.”

To comments regarding the cuts in education programs, Belcher’s decision was conflicted, but his reasoning rested on the lack of demand for those degrees.

“Several of the programs under review align with the six integrated curricular focus areas or other ‘2020 Vision’ priorities,” Belcher wrote in his final report, published on July 18. “While discontinuing such programs may appear to be at odds with our strategic plan, I am not inclined to support low-demand programs.”

Belcher added in his report, “A decision to discontinue a program does not imply a lack of value for the discipline. It is, rather a statement about current program reality. We do not have the luxury of offering quality programs, which do not enjoy student demand. As I reflected, however, I had to ask myself why WCU should continue programs which attract very few students even if there might be a need in the region or state. If Western Carolina is clearly not playing much of a role in meeting the need, why then should WCU continue to support those programs with scarce resources?”

Still, Western Carolina must deal with the concern over losing students because of the decisions. While WCU will use every effort to “teach out” students in their respective programs, some may choose to walk away from the University if they feel unsupported.

“I really don’t have any way of knowing what students in the programs will choose to do,” said Belcher. “We will put together teach out plans to ensure that WCU students who are already in those programs can finish their degrees here. In light of the enrollment growth which WCU is experiencing, I do not anticipate a net loss of students. And, indeed our plan over time is to reallocate resources dedicated to programs which are being discontinued to programs where there is high demand; thus, those resources will over time generate greater enrollment than they are currently doing.”

The next step will be determined by the Office of the Provost, which will deal with “timelines for action plans” and how to move forward with the discontinued programs, according to Belcher.

Dr. Will Peebles, director of the School of Music and professor, addressed the concerns of his lost graduate programs in music and music education.

“Students currently enrolled in the master’s programs, including those who are just beginning their studies this fall, will be allowed to complete the programs before they are phased out after the spring semester 2015. I will be meeting with all the music graduate students this fall to ensure that all the necessary courses are being offered,” said Peebles.

Peebles also said that the final decision did not come as shock.

“We have a very small graduate program,” said Peebles, “less than a dozen full-time students in three different degree programs. These programs have been regularly on the list for low-productivity review, so the ultimate decision of the program prioritization process was not really a surprise. We have enjoyed a good deal of support for the programs from their graduates, but the numbers have stayed fairly small for many years.

“Dean Robert Kehrberg and I met with the Chancellor to discuss the program,” continued Peebles. “It was a very candid meeting, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the master’s programs in the context of the School of Music’s overall agenda.”

Dr. Laura Wright, head of the English department, also plans to “teach out” students enrolled in the two master’s programs of teaching English to speakers of other languages, also known as TESOL.

“. . .We have worked out individual plans for all of [the students],” said Wright. “We will be working with the Provost’s Office to formulate teach out plans. I am looking forward to those conversations so that I can have a better sense of what discontinuation will look like – both for our students and our TESOL faculty.”

Wright expressed mixed feelings about Belcher’s decision.

“I don’t know that I was necessarily surprised,” stated Wright. “In terms of the impact of these cuts on the University, I suppose it remains to be seen how they will affect us. My hope is that the institution will emerge stronger as a result of this process, that we will invest resources into strengthening the programs that were not cut. Western Carolina was founded as an institution for teachers, and we’ve had a long history dedicated to training good teachers. These cuts indicate that perhaps we’re shifting our focus.”

Three programs did release a long sigh of relief in July when Belcher pulled them off the chopping block to continue at WCU. Belcher made several notes on why these programs are allowed to stay in his final report, found online at

For the Spanish and Spanish education bachelor’s programs, Belcher listed regional and statewide needs as the reason for their continuation.

“The profiles of these two programs are weak at best,” said Belcher. “Performance metrics across the board are passable but unimpressive. Nonetheless, I strongly believe these programs have enormous potential, particularly in light of the burgeoning Latino population in our region and state. The long-term viability of programs in Spanish rests in the capacity of leadership at the program, department and college levels to achieve two goals: 1) to re-envision these programs as dynamic degrees which are responsive to the applied needs of the Western North Carolina region, and 2) to generate robust enrollment, retention and graduation profiles. The action plan should reflect these goals.”

In regards to the film and television production program, led by Jack Sholder, Belcher called it a “unique program in which many of the performance metrics are on an upward trajectory.”

“Graduates are accepted into top graduate programs and gainfully employed in degree-related fields,” continued Belcher. “And, in late spring and thus outside the decision-making process of the Program Prioritization Task Force, the program received an external validation of quality from the Sony Corporation which chose Western Carolina University’s [FTP] program as the recipient of a gift of its most advanced professional video production camera. Sony made such gifts to less than a dozen film programs in the United States.”

Belcher added, “To be sure, the BFA in [FTP] is an expensive program, but if program cost formed the primary criterion, many more programs would be in question.”

“I got a better night’s sleep than I did the night before,” said Sholder in a previous interview with The Western Carolinian about Belcher’s decision. “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.”

Still, Sholder worries how badly the program will hurt from the negative publicity due to the low rating given by the task force.

“Basically, I tried to get more information from the program prioritization task force to support how they came to these conclusions,” said Sholder. “Normally, when you’re sentenced to death, they explain to you why. . . So, we didn’t get that, and I have no idea whether the Chancellor got any of that stuff. If you look at the report, there are basically nine criteria. Depending on how you fulfilled these criteria, it put you in category one, two or three. We did well on almost everything, and I asked the then-acting provost Mark Lord since there was no other information if we should just look at those nine points, which is kind of like a rubric.

“So, if you were in my class and there was a rubric with nine things that you had to do to succeed,” continued Sholder, “and you did well, and I failed you, you’d be in my office, saying, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ So basically, what we did was look at all nine points.”

Before Belcher announced which programs were saved, Sholder added to previous statements published in earlier The Western Carolinian articles that he was disappointed by the task force.

“Now, the question that I posed to the Chancellor wasn’t whether we deserved to continue, because clearly we do by every metric, by looking at those nine points,” said Sholder. “The question was how those 12 distinguished people could have gotten it so wrong. I clearly have a vested interest in seeing the program go forward. Here are 12 distinguished members of the University who spent nine months investigating this, and they come to a different conclusion.”

There has been other grumbling from program directors that the task force’s prioritization recommendation list was inaccurate. However, Belcher firmly stands by the group, which included Chip Ferguson, associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Technology; Brian Railsback, dean of the Honors College; Laura Cruz, associate professor and director of the Coulter Faculty Commons, and three students.

“I certainly applaud and support the Task Force’s recommendation that the institution work to consolidate its various program review processes for efficiency’s sake,” said Belcher in his final report. “This endeavor has been led by a superb group of faculty, staff and students, which itself benefited from the excellent leadership of Dr. Vicki Szabo, our late Provost Angi Brenton and, in the latter part of the last academic year, Dr. Mark Lord who served in Provost Brenton’s stead.”

Belcher also explained that these cuts are necessary due to the economic crisis that has so highly affected education. As the state of North Carolina moves forward with a new process for funding its public universities, Belcher must consider how to better WCU in order to continue receiving a strong amount of funding. This is why programs with a low amount of demand suffered.

“Western Carolina’s program prioritization process has taken place against the backdrop of a North Carolina higher education funding model which is in transition,” said Belcher. “In recent years, enrollment growth has been the primary source of increased state funding through a biennial process of enrollment forecasting. Until recently, institutions which failed to achieve their enrollment targets were held harmless; that is, they kept the funding based on enrollment targets they did not achieve. The held harmless approach, however, is no longer used.”

Belcher continued, “Thus, enrollment numbers, retention rates and graduation rates, key metrics of program viability in WCU’s program prioritization process this year, will be fundamentally important to ensure state funding for Western Carolina University. It is therefore imperative that each program at Western Carolina University own the responsibility for its own achievement of enrollment, retention rate and graduation rate goals. The program prioritization process has revealed weaknesses in these areas.”

Program prioritization is not over yet. The process is an “ongoing one,” as described by Belcher.

“There are a couple of steps to follow,” said Belcher. “First, the Office of the Provost will work with programs which will be discontinued to put a phased discontinuation plan together, which will include teaching out the students who are already in the program. Second, the Office of the Provost will put together a plan to integrate program prioritization into WCU’s ongoing assessment process. . .”

Belcher added that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, WCU’s accrediting agency, has given the University processes and guidelines for the programs’ discontinuation, which will be followed appropriately.

Apart from the 10 programs mentioned previously, the following programs will voluntarily discontinue: bachelor’s in business administration as a second major for non-business students; master’s in chemistry education; master’s in teaching music; and minors in American studies, Appalachian studies, broadcast sales, broadcast telecommunications engineering technology, digital communications engineering technology, earth sciences and multimedia.

For more information on the program prioritization, Belcher’s final report and the task force, go to For questions or concerns for students enrolled in a cut program, contact the Office of the Provost at 828-227-7495 or the Office of Admission at 828-227-7317.