Voting with Their Feet

cry

By Mark Bauerlein

The unreality of many educators is often an astonishing spectacle.

The University of Wisconsin has issued a draft document under the title “Program Productivity Monitoring.” The document lays out certain criteria for reviewing academic programs in the Wisconsin system.  (An “academic program” is defined as “majors approved by the Board of Regents.”)  The issue is productivity, here measured by the number of students who earn a degree in the program each year.

7-13_18_(4)Revised Policy_102_6.3 Program Monitoring.pdfwww.dropbox.com

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Here is the headline insidehighered.com gave to a story on the proposal, according to my printout of it on Wednesday morning: “Another controversial policy proposal in Wisconsin would eliminate all programs based on number of majors.”  (The Web version that I just looked up on Friday morning was more detailed: “Blunt Instrument: Another controversial policy proposal in Wisconsin would eliminate all programs with fewer than five majors annually, on average, if ‘remediation’ didn’t work.  Faculty leaders see attempt to turn system into a ‘widget factory.’” People quoted in the story said this:

Another controversial policy proposal in Wisconsin would eliminate all programs based on number of majorswww.insidehighered.com

Another controversial policy proposal in Wisconsin would eliminate all programs with fewer than five majors annually, on average, if “remediation” didn’t work. Faculty leaders see attempt to turn system into a “widget factory.”

  • “. . . when you start to see across-the-board cuts like this in colleges or in business – when numerical rules are imposed – it generally means there’s been a breakdown in communication or trust between the organization and its leadership.”
  • “People want to speed things up at universities just like they want to speed things up at a widget factory.  But that’s like comparing apples to meat loaf.”
  • “. . . the draft monitoring comes at a time of intense distrust between campus faculty and staff and system administrators” (this is a paraphrase of one statement by a denizen of the Madison campus provided by reporter Colleen Flaherty).

Controversy, across-the-board cuts, widget factories, intense distrust.  It sounds pretty bad.

Now, here’s the reality check.  There are no across-the-board cuts taking place, nothing is being sped up, and nothing in the document expresses distrust or animosity toward the faculty.  Instead, we have an entirely modest proposal to phase out programs that can’t draw in any students.  The only programs endangered by the plan are those that have graduated, on average, fewer than five majors per year for the last five years.  On the graduate level, programs would have to produce an average of only three master’s recipients per year to survive.  (There are no numerical requirements listed for doctoral degrees: “All doctoral programs will be monitored annually for specific criteria established by the doctoral granting institutions.”)

How in the world would this meager, minimal demand count as an act of mistrust?  To people outside the campus, running a major year after year that can’t attract a microscopic segment of the students appears more controversial than cutting it.  It takes a lot of work hours to administer a major.  To believe that a mere three or four undergraduates in a school with thousands of students justifies the cost and effort . . . well, such a person has never had to meet a budget or run an organization or manage s small business.  He has lived a professional life sequestered from the circumstances that make that professional life possible.  He has no idea of what it takes to run a university.

The process of elimination, we should add, doesn’t seem to entail the removal of professors.  If a program has been judged “low-productivity,” it has the opportunity to submit an “action plan” whose steps may include strategies for increasing enrollments (such as, one could imagine, lower-division courses that would attract freshmen and sophomores into the pipeline), integration with other programs, and alternative “delivery models.”  The program will then have three years to show improvement and meet the at-least-five-majors requirement.  In other words, all they need to do is pick up a couple more students each year.

The question to ask is now why the administration has devised this plan.  It is, rather, why it has had to do so.  Why haven’t low productivity departments taken the initiative themselves to boost their popularity?  We must presume that the UW system has several programs that fall into the low single-digits when it comes to majors.  The administration wouldn’t have taken this step if the program were rare.

One has to wonder what the leaders of those programs have been thinking all these semesters when the number of teachers in the department matched the number of majors.  What did they imagine would happen as they saw their courses so sparsely attended?  It is unfortunate that insidehighered.com didn’t get any people in those jeopardized departments to discuss their situation and what they have done about it in the recent past.  Did they really think that this crazy ratio of teacher-to-student would go on forever?

The professors in those programs should view this policy proposal as an invitation to act entrepreneurially.  They’ve got to get the numbers up (though not very much).  That means making their programs more attractive to undergraduates, 18-20-year-olds—which may not be a bad thing.  If teachers have failed to make their material alluring to sophomores, then they need to ask why.  After that, they need to experiment with forms of marketing that don’t make too many intellectual compromises.  If the students still don’t find them appealing, the professors need to look in the mirror and allow that the students may have a point.

Are the teachers unpleasantly ideological?  Do they have too much of a research focus?  Have they become complacent, actually favoring the tiny enrollments because they mean less work?  Are they just plain dull?

Who knows?  But students have voted with their feet, and have done so for years.  We can’t blame the administration for listening to them.  The people quoted in the story point their fingers in the wrong direction, at the officials over in the bureaucratic side of the quad.  But they aren’t the ones who have told the undergraduates not to enroll in this program and that.  They aren’t the ones who have designed the curriculum.  Most importantly, they aren’t the ones standing at the classroom podium and spending 15 weeks with the kids.  Let’s take a look at the ones with whom the students have the closest contact and figure out why the students don’t wish to stick around or come back.

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