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WCU weighs merits of majors in light of funding challenges

Western Carolina University will erase 10 degree programs, including women’s studies and the graduate music courses, from its books during the next few years.


WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher last week announced the fate of 13 degree programs up for elimination based on the recommendation of a task force. Belcher who had the final say, decided to cut 10 of the degree programs and saved the remaining three.

The chancellor’s decision concludes a comprehensive review of WCU’s 130 majors, minors and masters degrees. The review assessed what degrees weren’t pulling their weight enrollment wise — primarily those that simply didn’t appear to have high student demand.

“It is not fair to judge a program by a single year, so we looked at trends over time,” Belcher said.

The review took into account the number of students in a degree, how many graduated with said degree and how the degree fit into WCU’s strategic plan, among other factors. 

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In a time when funding is limited, some colleges such as WCU are moving away from the traditional liberal arts model of scatter-gun education with a wide range of interests to pursue. Instead, they focus their resources on a narrower group of strong degree programs.

“Western Carolina University cannot be all things to all people,” Belcher said.

Rather than having many OK programs, the university can cultivate and improve its more popular degrees.

“We are looking very pragmatically at making sure we invest our resource in those areas in demand,” Belcher said. “How well are we utilizing the resources from taxpayers?” 

Therein lies part of the rub. WCU has lost $32 million in state funding since 2008, with more cuts anticipated to come.

Belcher predicted that enrollment will increasingly dominate state funding formulas, and so degrees must pull their weight.

“State funding for all of our institutional priorities will be tied to enrollment, retention rates, and graduation rates,” Belcher wrote in an internal memo to faculty. 

Keeping degrees that lack student numbers on the books is simply a luxury universities can’t afford anymore in today’s budget realities.

“A decision to discontinue a program does not imply a lack of value for the discipline,” Belcher said.

A 17-member task force began the evaluation process last fall. In late May, the task force released its recommendations — eight degrees were listed as historically strong and worthy of more funding; 96 were marked as adequate and in no need of adjustment; five needed to create an action plan for improvement; and the 13 were nominated for elimination altogether. Lastly, eight were voluntarily cut because they had low demand or, in many cases, were not actively offered to students.

Along with funding, Belcher assessed whether the university could get stretched too thin by too many degrees, diffusing its focus in “so many directions that the institution jeopardizes the quality of all of its programs,” Belcher wrote in a memo to WCU faculty.


Keep on, keeping on

Faculty who run the 13 majors, minors and masters degrees slated for elimination had the opportunity to meet with Belcher and plead their case for why they should be saved. Of those, three were successful — the bachelor’s degree programs in Spanish, Spanish Education, and Film and Television Production.

Although both Spanish degrees had less than stellar enrollment rates, Belcher said that with some effort, the programs could persuade some students who might only minor in Spanish or Spanish Education to sign-up for the bachelor’s major.

“The numbers are not really bad, but they are not really good either, so I understand where the task force was coming from,” Belcher said. However, “Because of the burgeoning Latino population in our area, I think it’s critical that we keep (those program).”

As for the Film and Television Production major, the task force argued that it served only a limited number of students and had below average graduation rates, while costing WCU more than other programs.

However, Jack Sholder, director of Film and Television Production program, said enrollment has increased 40 percent, while graduation rates have gone up 60 percent during the last five years. It had 75 freshmen taking courses in the program last year.

“We should have been in category one, not in category three,” Sholder said. “For a little school in Western North Carolina, we have a really powerhouse program.”

Belcher agreed that the degree has gradually built itself up. He also noted new information that came available after the task force had reached its conclusions among the reasons he chose to retain the degree. 

Sony Corporation gave the program a nearly $100,000 state-of-the-art camera in May. WCU was one of less than a dozen film programs to receive one of these new industry-standard cameras from Sony.

“It was an external validation for that program,” Belcher said. “It is a strong program.”

The Film and Television Production program will be under the spotlight to improve.

“Can we make the program better? Sure. We do that ourselves. Every year, we make changes,” Sholder said. “We are very open to whatever suggestions the provost has.”


Mostly dead

Ten other programs were not as lucky (see box). Among them were the minor in women’s studies, the German language major, and the master’s degrees in music education and music performance.

Marilyn Chamberlin, head of women’s studies minor, said she was “obviously disappointed,” but understood the rationale involved in the decision. “We didn’t have the numbers,” she said.

After the task force’s recommendations came out earlier this year, Chamberlain admitted that enrollment numbers for the minor were low but said that it just needed to be publicized more so students knew it existed. Although she had crafted a plan to boost the minor’s performance, her efforts were all for not.

However, Chamberlain said she believes her program was given a fair shake.

“I left the meeting feeling as if, for the first time in the process, we had actually been listened to without, to some extent, some prejudgment,” Chamberlin said. “This decision is coming at a time when budgets are being cut, and something has to be cut.”

Even though WCU will no longer offer the minor to incoming students, only one course — Introduction to Women’s Studies — will actually be cut once the program is completely eliminated. The university will continue to offer other classes dealing with women and gender issues; there just won’t be a degree in it.

The case is similar for other eliminated programs as well. In the School of Music, classes will still be there — there just won’t be a masters. In fact, there weren’t exactly separate courses for masters students anyway. Masters students were in the same classrooms as their undergrad counterparts, but they had additional work and were held to a higher standard.

Belcher, who actually received a master’s degree in piano performance, said he looked at each program as objectively as possible, and although some degrees aligned with goals set out in WCU’s 2020 vision strategic plan, they were in too low of demand to consider keeping.

The 10 cut programs will not go away immediately. Some students are currently in those degree programs, and WCU leaders want to give them a chance to finish their degree before eliminating it. In the meantime, however, the provost’s office will formulate a plan for how to erase the degrees once there are no longer students seeking them.



What stays, what goes?

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

Bachelor’s degree programs in Spanish, Spanish Education, and Film and Television Production were up for elimination, but Chancellor David Belcher decided not to cut them after further review.

The following degrees, however, will slowly be phased out, eight of them voluntarily and the others at the behest of administration.

Bachelor’s degrees being eliminated:

• German

• Business Administration (BSBA)

Master’s degrees being eliminated:

• 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

• Master of Arts in Education and Master of Arts in Teaching/Chemistry

• Master of Arts in Teaching/Music

Minors being eliminated:

• Women’s Studies

• Broadcast Sales

• American Studies 

• Multimedia 

• Earth Sciences 

• Appalachian Studies

• Digital Communications Engineering Technology

• Broadcast Telecommunications Engineering Technology

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