Pa. state universities consider eliminating some majors

Cutting is seen as a way to improve worsening finances

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Lock Haven University wants to build a classroom and research center that will bring to campus new science majors, including aspiring chemists.

Yet that didn't stop the State System of Higher Education from placing the future of the general chemistry degree program on that campus under review.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, faculty in the philosophy department are being asked to explain why their bachelor's program should not be eliminated. They must show that Pennsylvania's largest state-owned university can still afford to graduate young adults versed in the works of Socrates and Nietzsche.

Across many of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, there is uncertainty and angst over an effort by the State System to address its worsening financial state. The system has identified scores of degree programs that have low enrollments on individual campuses, and therefore, may be ripe for modification, consolidation with other programs -- or, in extreme cases, elimination.

State System data circulating among faculty indicate as many as 250 degree programs have been singled out for special scrutiny. Targeted programs on individual campuses run the gamut, from degrees within geography and mass communication, to others in physics, economics and math.

Program reviews, sometimes leading to elimination, are a regular part of university life. State System faculty say they are accustomed to them every five years.

But the faculty and State System officials agree this program review is bigger in scope and is being conducted with more urgency. It is taking place as the 14 campuses with their rapidly rising enrollments grapple with both stagnant state aid and the recession, including the likely loss in 2011 of $38 million in federal economic stimulus money.

Those pressures have exacerbated challenges for the system of 117,000 students that managed to keep tuition increases at or below inflation in four of the last five years.

"We're not in a normal situation. Our finances are not what they have been," said State System spokesman Kenn Marshall, noting the reviews are part of an unprecedented systemwide cost-containment effort. "We're making sure we can offer our students what they need in the areas they need it in. We believe this review is absolutely necessary."

Executives, including Jim Moran, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, were unavailable to provide further specifics, including the criteria for placing a program under review.

But faculty and their union representatives say the threshold chosen was anything less than 30 graduates over five years for undergraduate programs, and less than 20 over five years for graduate degrees.

Data from the State System show some degree programs produced a handful of graduates or fewer per year, but faculty said that in a number of cases enrollment in their programs was not fully counted.

Besides, using such an arbitrary cutoff punishes programs small in size but large in their impact on students and their educational choices, they argue.

A subject matters worth, they say, should not be based on the number of graduates churned out.

"We're not factories. We're universities," said Charles McCreary, chair of IUP's French and German department, which is fighting to keep its six bachelor's programs from being cut.

Critics of the review say the 14 universities and not the State System headquarters in Harrisburg should decide what degree opportunities make sense for the communities that each school serves.

"I really do understand their dilemma, and I think every faculty at every university understands their dilemma, but is this the way you address it?" asked Michael Slavin, theater and dance department chairman at California University of Pennsylvania. "You pick the number 30, and everybody under 30 has to justify their existence.

"This is an insult to many of our faculty who feel what they do is central to the life of the university," said Dr. Slavin, who also is vice president of the campus chapter of the faculty union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. "Challenging them to justify their existence is really a slap in the face."

The bachelor's program in Dr. Slavin's department is under review, but he said the campus administration is on record backing its continuation. Like other department chairs interviewed, he expressed confidence that his department had built a compelling case for sparing the program.

That can be an elaborate process. At IUP, the six faculty members of the philosophy department put in about 40 hours of meetings and research to draft a report that included plans for how to retain and graduate more students and how to make their program more popular. They showed data that philosophy majors outperformed other majors nationally on standardized tests, including the Graduate Record Exam verbal and analytical writing sections.

Sherrill Begres, chair of the philosophy department at IUP, said her faculty also proposed a new track in ethics and values focusing on areas including business ethics and bioethics.

"From my perspective, it doesn't make sense to call it a university unless it has a philosophy major," Dr. Begres said.

She said that even without a major, the university would still need philosophy faculty to teach the courses that more than 800 nonmajors take each semester to fulfill general graduation requirements.

"Clearly my faculty is concerned because if you get rid of the philosophy major, then, of course, any philosophers that can will leave. They want to be able to teach the majors' courses. We're happy to teach the service [nonmajor] courses because we know how important critical thinking skills are to the job market. But as philosophers, we want to be able to exercise our skills with philosophy majors," she said.

Some hard science programs also are making a case for themselves. At Lock Haven, the chemistry faculty pointed out that their program would have been above the 30-student threshold had a combination biology/chemistry degree been counted. Jacqueline Whitling, chair of the chemistry department, said the administration has pledged its support for the chemistry major.

Other faculty worry the degree reviews are a prelude to reducing the number of professors across the system, despite an increase of 22,000 students over the last decade.

A fundamental role of the 14 campuses has been delivering affordable education to students near their homes, said Francisco Alarcon, IUP mathematics department chairman and vice president of the faculty union's campus chapter. Many students do not want, nor can they afford, to move across the state to find a major no longer offered on their home campus.

But Mr. Marshall, the State System spokesman, said that, if anything, the goal is to strengthen the universities and make them more accountable in an era of significantly diminished resources. The State System receives about $5,000 per student in state aid, including temporary stimulus money, compared to $7,000 in state aid a decade ago.

Mr. Marshall said the system hopes to make its decisions on programs in time for the fall semester. He said the number of programs covered by the review likely is narrowing as it progresses, but he said the State System could not offer even an estimate.

"We need to make sure we are making the best use of our available resources," he said. "We need to make sure we are being good stewards of the money we have."

A review of a major, he said, doesn't mean it is in jeopardy.

"Just because they are on that list, doesn't mean we are going to get rid of them. It's possible that some of these programs will continue exactly as they are. They may be in a field that is important enough, that even though the numbers aren't great, we need [to encourage] more students to go into that field."


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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