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Battle over degrees at WCU could heat up

coverWestern Carolina University is grappling with whether to cut unpopular or obsolete majors, posing a conundrum as it and other universities examine their deeper role in society: to provide a well-rounded, liberal arts education or steer students toward degrees in promising career fields?

The curriculum at Western Carolina University is fluid — every year, degrees are added and subtracted from its list of offerings to meet shifts in student demand.


Usually, only a few change. Since 2009, WCU has eliminated 17 degrees and added four.

But this year, in an attempt to refocus its academic mission, a WCU task force undertook a comprehensive review of all 130 of its degrees. The committee marked some as virile and others as deficient. The vast majority ranked somewhere in the middle.

“It is a huge undertaking,” said Mark Lord, WCU’s acting provost and a geology professor.

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The task force marked the degrees the university should invest more money in, leave as it, consider revamping or cut.

“We had a range of possibilities throughout our process,” said Vicki Szebo, co-chair of the task force and an associate professor of history. “We had no idea if we were going to recommend any discontinuations from the outset.”

However, the task force recommended that the unlucky 13 that ranked lowest on its scale be cut. Among them are the women’s studies minor, the master’s degrees in music and music education, the German and Spanish majors, and the bachelor’s degree in motion picture and television production.

While the departments won’t disappear — there may still be classes — there simply won’t be majors or masters.

“If that happens, we will just have to be more creative about what we can do with what we have left,” said William Peebles, director of WCU’s School of Music.

Many of the degrees facing discontinuation had low graduation rates — with a dozen or fewer students earning degrees in those fields every year. Only the Spanish language major had more than 10 people graduate in any given year.

But Szebo emphasized that enrollment was only one factor in the evaluation.

“The recommendation itself was based on the totality of that data,” Szebo said.

Similarly, although it is a factor, the assessment wasn’t in response to budgetary pressures.

“Part of it is just house cleaning,” Lord said. “We do eliminate programs virtually every year.”

On the flip side, the task force also identified eight degrees, including parks and recreation management, nursing and social work, as Category 1, meaning they are strong and deserving of more funding.

“Exactly what that will mean we don’t know,” said Ben Tholkes, degree director of parks and recreation management. “It was just an honor to be in Category 1.”

As some degrees go away, the university could reallocate funding to expand degrees with the potential for growth. Those targeted for growth fall in two primary fields: health care and the outdoors or natural resources. Both are popular with students, as health care offers a rather secure career track. Meanwhile, the outdoors is a unique niche for a mountain-based campus.

But for degrees on both sides, what will come of the recommendations is unknown. The task force report was forwarded to WCU Chancellor David Belcher, who will give each degree program a final review. He could agree with all the recommendations, some of them or none at all.

WCU’s Board of Trustees will make a final decision about each degree based on the report and Belcher’s comments.


The process

The impetus for the degree review was the university’s 2020 strategic plan, which outlines a clear set of goals for the next decade. When Belcher came on board in fall 2011 — marking the first changing of the guard in university leadership in 15 years — he kick started a series of visioning and planning projects to outline what the university wants to accomplish in the coming decades, from academic concentrations to a campus master plan. 

One of the top priorities in the 2020 plan was to do a major review of WCU’s degree programs.

WCU’s review is about “strengthening what we do well and try to improve in other areas,” Szebo said.

The evaluation looked at a degree program’s graduation rates, enrollment trends, costs and how it lines up with the university’s mission to “deliver high-quality academic degrees designed to promote regional economic and community development.”

Last fall, the provost put together a 17-member task force comprised mostly of faculty members, as well as graduate and undergraduate student representation and the dean of the Honors College.

“This was the right mix of real personalities,” Szebo said.

The committee used both hard data and narratives (or qualitative data) prepared by the colleges to evaluate each degree. Although members of the task force often had personal connections to various degree programs, strict guidelines provided to the group for how to assess individual degrees made the process easier, Szebo said.

“With a group like this everybody in the room knows most of these people. We really tried — sitting in the room while I hear my degree being talked about, it was hard,” Szebo said. “We really kept it to the data and the narrative.”

The task force tried to keep emotions out of the process. No one was allowed to advocate for his or her own degree.

Case in point, the task force even suggested cutting the School of Music’s master’s degrees. Belcher earned a master’s degree in piano performance. 


Education philosophy

As funding for education shrinks, it is difficult for colleges and universities to maintain a liberal arts education. The U.S. has well-known liberal arts colleges, such as Wesleyan University, Amherst College or Davidson College, for those interested in that type of broad-based education.

But other four-year institutions are realizing that spreading what little money it does have across a plethora of disciplines may not be sustainable for them. 

“I think that (liberal arts) model is wonderful, but I think a lot of universities can’t maintain that anymore,” Szebo said.

So others have been looking at what degrees excel at their university, be it engineering or teaching or nursing, and focusing more of their funds on those.

That is not to say that universities will scrap whole departments. They will continue to teach all the basics — language, math and philosophy — but they just may not offer them as a major. Students at WCU can currently take Chinese or French, for example, but the school doesn’t have degrees in them.

State leaders, including the governor, have called for colleges and universities to enhance degrees that translate to jobs, particularly those in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

But professors argue that universities are not simply job factories, churning out students with majors that feed straight into a slate of tried-and-true careers.

The roots of higher education are based on the principle that you can breed a more savvy, well-rounded populous by providing them with a breadth of learning opportunities. Universities were established to offer people a Renaissance education, not to train a cadre of graduates in narrowly focused fields.

 “That shift is short-sighted,” said Peebles. 


Long-term effects

While the university may hand some degrees a pink slip come the end of July, when Belcher will weigh in on the report, they will not immediately disappear. WCU’s Board of Trustees, the University of North Carolina System and the university’s accreditation board must all agree to cut the degrees.

Plus, most of the programs still have a few students working toward a degree. They can’t be cut mid-stream, leaving students part way through their major in the lurch. So university leaders will have to draft a plan for how to phase out each degree.

“We are still committed to our students,” Lord said.

Since the university will gradually eliminate degrees, WCU will not likely realize any cost savings in the first couple years. If the goal is to free up funding to plow into majors targeted for growth, it could obviously be a while before savings are realized to do this.

“The investment is longer term,” Lord said. “There is no immediate savings.”

The university currently has no estimates for how much money it could save if it eliminates all 13 degrees.

However, some may translate to little or no savings. In cases like the American Studies minors, WCU will cut no actual courses or faculty members — only the title of the minor.


Funding positive growth

How much, if anything, the university will invest in its top eight degrees is also unknown. That hasn’t stopped the three professors in WCU’s Parks and Recreation Management degree from reviewing their wish list.

“We’ve got a pretty extensive wish list,” said Tholkes, director of parks and recreation management.

The degree, which trains students for various outdoor recreation jobs, graduates between 20 and 30 students a year and is popular given WCU’s surroundings.

“Our students love to live in Cullowhee,” said Maurice Phipps, a professor of health, physical education and recreation.

Some come to Western North Carolina from cities and find the area too desolate for their taste, but people in the parks and recreation degree relish spending time outdoors on a river or mountain. The fact that the nearest mall is in Asheville doesn’t bother them.

“Our students don’t care about that stuff,” Phipps said.

Half of the degrees recommended for investment are related to outdoor recreation and the environment.

“Those are regionally focused degrees that make a difference,” Starnes said, adding that the environment around WCU is its greatest asset.

With more money in the parks and recreation management program’s budget, the university could possibly hire another faculty member. All of its classes are full this coming fall semester, Tholkes said. With only 2.5 full-time equivalent faculty members, “we can’t add any sections.” 

More funding would allow the program to add faculty and add staff, and in turn accommodate more students. If the demand for the major proves strong, it could actually mean more enrollment for the university.

Additional money would allow them to market the degree to potential students, which is currently not a priority. It would also increase parks and recreation management’s involvement in the community.

“We could do more with this area,” Tholkes said. “We just have limited time and limited resources.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park recently instituted a new backcountry camping fee, which could affect how many people take advantage of the opportunity. Tholkes said he would love to help the National Park Service conduct visitorship research, but there is not enough time or people to help.


A degree no more

All of the degrees up for elimination will have a chance to plead their case in front of Chancellor Belcher sometime during the next two months. 

“Recommendations aren’t a done deal,” Peebles said.

Faculty associated with the women’s studies minor and the music master’s degrees are mounting their cases for why each should remain as one of WCU’s degree offerings.

“That is all we can do at this point,” said Marilyn Chamberlain, director of WCU’s women’s studies degree. 

Peebles knows that his school’s music performance and music education master’s degrees are small, but he said getting rid of all the music department’s graduate degrees would harm the school. 

“We can slip them into some leadership roles or teaching roles here,” Peebles said.

Graduate students mentor undergraduates and lessen teacher workload.

“They are not going to save anything in faculty,” Peebles said. “We would actually have increased need.”

Graduate students also man the school’s lab and recording studio after hours and on weekends. Eliminating the degrees, and thereby the presences of graduate students, would limit access to both, unless the university wanted to pay for someone to keep the lab and studio open.

As far as classes go, only about two courses are graduate students only during a semester.

“A lot of our graduate classes are parallel with the undergraduate classes,” Peebles said.

The School of Music is currently gathering stories from current and former students, faculty and community members about their positive experience with the master’s degrees to present to Belcher during its appeal.

While the School of Music hopes to show the chancellor how its graduate degrees feed into its other degrees as well as its impact on the greater Cullowhee community, Chamberlain plans to use the task force’s report to argue for her degree’s survival. 

Although the report recommends discontinuing the women’s studies minor, it also encourages the chancellor to investigate effective ways to provide gender studies.

“That almost opens the door for an action plan rather than discontinuation,” Chamberlain said, adding that the minor includes classes that focus on gender and LGBT issues.

She has already crafted a five-point plan for improving the degree at no additional cost. The biggest task is letting people know about the minor.

In the past, leaders with women’s studies concentrated more on sponsoring university events, such as “Take Back the Night” and performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” rather than enrollment numbers. Chamberlain said she wants to identify faculty who support the degree and have them act as ambassadors to students, many of whom aren’t aware that WCU has a women’s studies minor.

“One of the things is just to get the word out we exist,” she said. “A lot of students say, ‘Gee, if I had known, I would have minored.’”

Although WCU will not stop offering the classes even if it stops offering the minor, the women’s studies degree has brought together students and faculty who are passionate about women and gender issues — which will disband without an umbrella degree.

“What we will lose is the collective,” Chamberlain said. “They do a lot of programming, a lot of advocacy.”

In addition to the 13 degrees recommended for elimination, college deans chose to voluntarily discontinue another eight degrees after their own review. Some were put on the books years ago and never taken off even though they weren’t active anymore.

“There were several where people were like ‘I didn’t even know we had that,’” Szebo said.

Some had no students in the degree, while others were outdated degrees.

“They were degrees where we had a need at one time, but that need in the market place had gone away,” said Richard Starnes, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Enrollment shifts.”

For example, American Studies was a popular discipline in the 1960s and 1970s, but today, there is no job market for those with such a degree. Rather than majoring or minoring in American Studies, students usually incorporate a class or two into their course schedule, which they will still be able to do if the American Studies minor is eradicated.

“Those classes won’t go away,” Starnes said. “It’s great to have it, but it’s not attracting students.”


Who will stay, who will go?

The task force charged with reviewing WCU’s 130 degrees recommended which degrees the university should grow, leave as it, cut or study further.

The following show the eight degrees that task force see as historically strong and worth of more funding, and the 13 it said should be eliminated.

Bachelor’s degrees identified as strong:

• Environmental Science

• Natural Resource Conservation and Management

• Parks and Recreation Management 

• Emergency Medical Care

• Recreational Therapy

• Nursing

Master’s degrees identified as strong:

• Communication Sciences and Disorders

• Social Work

Bachelor’s degrees recommended for elimination:

• German

• Spanish

• Spanish Education

• Motion Picture and Television Production

Master’s degrees recommended for elimination:

• English/Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA)

• Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MAEd/MAT)

• Applied Math

• Mathematics

• Music

• Music Education

• Health and Physical Education

Minors recommended elimination:

• Women’s Studies

• Broadcast Sales

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