Friday, January 9, 2015

Fallout From the Cut Session: Destroying the Essence of a University

As an academic advisor, one of the tasks I have to complete prior to the start of each semester is to provide “justifications” to administrators – chairs, deans, whomever in Academic Affairs – as to why classes offered in my discipline should not be canceled. These classes are “in jeopardy” due to “low enrollment,” which seems to mean whatever arbitrary number someone has determined is the correct number of students all classes should have, regardless of program or the nature of the class (also important to note, this number seems to change every semester). Since becoming an advisor several years ago, I have found this the most perplexing part of dealing with the power structure of the University. After all, isn’t the main mission of the University to educate students, and don’t we do that by providing classes every semester that are essential for their general education or education in their majors or professional programs? Why should we have to justify continuing to offer the classes that have been planned by faculty and departments to meet students’ needs? Shouldn’t it be the opposite situation, i.e. the administration justifying why they want to cut a particular course?

Over the past two academic years, as the numbers of courses cut by the administration have grown at an ever increasing rate, I no longer simply ask those questions. Instead, it seems clear to me that the result of these cut sessions is the destruction of the very essence of the University – to educate our students. After all, it’s the faculty and students who bear the brunt of the outcome of each cut session. And the worst of that outcome is reserved for students:  preventing them from learning about subjects/areas that they chose to study, setting them back in their progress towards degree, and in some cases even preventing them from graduating altogether.

The cut session for the Spring 2015 semester provides plenty of evidence for that conclusion. One of the courses cut by the administration in my discipline is the methods course required for all undergraduate majors – a course that was also cut in the Fall 2014 semester, which is typically only offered in the Fall semesters but because of it being cut we decided to offer it again in the Spring semester. Let that sink in for a minute. A course required for all students in a major was cut, not once but twice in consecutive semesters. Now, for further information. There were seven students enrolled in the course in the Fall and six in the Spring. There were students who are scheduled to graduate in May 2015 enrolled in the class in both semesters. Will they graduate this May? What course can be substituted for a required methods class in the discipline in which they major? What about other students who attempt to sign up for this course in the future, only to have it cut again? The administration has either de facto removed this requirement from the major or has prevented students from graduating with this major.

Similarly, a teaching certification student was enrolled in a required Education class in the Fall 2014 semester, and it was cut. He enrolled in the same class in the Spring 2015 semester, while he is student teaching, and again that class was cut. Will he complete his teaching certification this semester, or will he have to continue to try to take this course even after he has completed all other requirements including student teaching? Who knows.

I’m guessing that my experience is not unique, and I welcome comments from others who know of similar examples of students being harmed by the results of the cut sessions. Please take time to note some of those examples in the comment section.

I have tried repeatedly to figure out a logic for the cut session and its results. As time has gone on, the only logic I can see is that it’s become part of the process of destroying the very mission of the University to educate its students. As a faculty member and an advisor, what can I tell students who search for an explanation and a strategy to deal with this situation? I can think of only one reasonable response: transfer to another University. Surely, students are already thinking about this option and many have done so in the past. So, here we have an intersection of the problem of the massive enrollment declines on the University that have been so thoroughly documented on this blog and the very heart of the academic mission of the University. Can we add these things together? I think so.


  1. I sent this e-mail this morning to Robin Hawkins and Angela Henderson. Because of its length, it has to be in two parts. Part one:

    I am writing to advise you that many of the decisions made by the administrative members responsible for the recent course cuts were simply appalling. These decisions will likely have consequences for the university and certainly have adverse consequences for students working toward degrees. I have several concerns/questions:

    First: the elimination of courses required in degree programs puts students in the position of not being able to enroll in the classes they need to graduate. If they are late in their programs, this can set back their graduation dates, resulting in unnecessary additional expenditures of time and money. In my discipline alone, a methods/theory course required of all our majors was cut for the second straight semester. This class included two students expecting to graduate in May. Both of the advisors in our discipline made the importance of retaining this course clear to the Chair and the Associate Deans of the College, to no avail.

    Second: Degree programs are carefully constructed by faculty in the various disciplines in the college and university. When required courses are continuously cut by the administration, that action undermines the integrity of our programs. How are we to insist that our students fulfill their degree requirements when the university administration fails to insure the availability of the courses needed to complete those requirements?

    Third: How does this seemingly arbitary course-cutting benefit either the university or our students? In a school with plunging enrollments, why are we making it more difficult for our students to complete their programs? How will the practice of unnecessary course cuts help recruiting efforts?
    As you must know, many of our students perform delicate juggling acts to work, discharge family responsibilities and attend school. They cannot easily move from one class to another, particularly when the courses left after the cut session may not fit their schedules. Often, a student with four courses must rearrange her/his entire schedule to accommodate a cancelled class. Why do we want to put our students in that position? Why do we want to jeopardize our students’ financial aid by turning full-time students into part-time students? Whose interests does that serve?

  2. Here's part two:

    Fourth: The early cutting of classes with enrollments of 7,8 or 9 is foolish. Historically, a number of our students wait until the last minute to register for classes. When justifiable course eliminations occur, the students displaced from those courses have typically turned to the courses still available to fill their schedules. These “on the cusp” courses will most likely have additional students by the first day of classes and by the end of the first week, will approach the arbitrary 50% threshold for keeping a course on the books.

    Fifth: What exactly are the criteria for eliminating or retaining a course? A simple mathematical formula is problematic when used in this environment. How about advanced degree programs with enrollments that will not generate large numbers of students in a specific course? How about required courses in particular professional specializations? Along with the course cuts made in our degree courses, the administration apparently cut two courses required of all students in Secondary Education programs, regardless of their disciplines. In one case, a student completing a Teacher Certification program and who is student teaching this semester, is unable to complete his certification requirements as things currently stand because a supporting Education course has been cancelled (for the second consecutive semester). Again, cancellation of required courses in specific professional or degree programs undermines the integrity of those programs. I would very much like to know what the policy for course cancellations is. I am sure that our students would like to have that information also as it would be useful in planning their schedules.

    Finally, I am not sure I understand the point of asking advisors and coordinators in departments to write justifications for “under enrolled” courses when those justifications are apparently ignored. In my discipline, we submitted justifications for three courses. They were all cut and there is no indication that our justifications were even considered.

    I have made my concerns clear to my Chair and to the representatives of our College Dean. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

    Yours truly,

    Bob Bionaz

  3. Is it an accident that these cuts were made in history, where three history profs, especially Bionaz, are leading critics of what the administration is doing? If these cuts were retaliatory, then the administration is showing its colors: putting retaliation against faculty critics ahead of student needs.
    Would the administration dare to do this if our students were from influential white families? It smacks of racism to me.

  4. It makes no sense unless it is to either punish the history department, which is a hotbed of justified anti-Watsonism, or to kill the University.

    I have made a HUGE investment in time and money at Chicago State. The administration is destroying the return I can expect on that investment.

  5. Can a student take one of their low enrollment classes as an independent study class, especially if they need it for graduation?