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The Book That Is Changing Higher Education
Understanding "Program Prioritization"
Yesterday, I got word that Wheaton College had made an announcement to its community and alums that changes were in the air. These aren’t as controversial as my recent newsletters about LGBTQ issues. But they are important, maybe more important, to what is going on in Christian Universities.
The Wheaton announcement, shared with me by a friend, includes the following:
Today, we announced the following measures to optimize Academic Division operations beginning with the 2023-2024 school year. We expect to announce additional, non-academic changes following our February board meetings. Under the oversight of the Board of Trustees, the administration based these decisions on recommendations from faculty and staff committees:
During Academic Year 2023-24, we will begin to modify the following academic programs from majors to minors, certificates, or concentrations: Chinese, German, and Classical Languages. Regrettably, each of these excellent majors enrolls less than 1% of our undergraduate student body.
All students currently enrolled in one of these majors will be able to take the courses they need to complete their academic programs by their senior year. We will also continue to foster interest in language and cultural studies by sustaining a range of co-curricular offerings, including study abroad programs, cultural affinity groups, and global internships.
In addition to not renewing certain academic staff positions and visiting faculty lines for next school year, sadly this week we have informed 10 of our 213 tenured and tenure-track faculty and permanent lecturers that their positions will end in June of 2024 or 2025.
The Board of Trustees has approved a financial plan for the phased implementation of these academic program modifications. This investment enables the orderly transition of specific curricular offerings to support a seamless student experience. Importantly, phased implementation also allows all full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty, as well as permanent lecturers, to teach at Wheaton at least through the spring semester of 2024.
Please know that we will provide appropriate transition assistance for all employees affected by these difficult decisions. We encourage our alumni to express appreciation for our faculty members and to keep them in prayer—especially any faculty or staff who made your time at Wheaton a special experience.
Now I’m easily persuaded that perhaps majors/minors in German or Classic Languages should get a hard look in terms of their viability (Chinese seems to be more important for our current age). In many cases, programs like these are holdovers from a particular faculty member’s interest or expertise that may struggle along long after that person has left the institution.1
I have watched this process roll out in a dozen institutions in recent years. Some are faculty-driven. Some result from administrative priorities. Some are mandated by the Board of Trustees. I’ve known faculty members who have been part of the process at their home institution and have watched the emotional and spiritual toil that comes from making “data-informed decisions” about which of their colleagues will no longer be at the institution.
Twenty years ago, when I was Chief Academic Officer at a Christian University, I attended a conference for CAO’s of private institutions sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges. It was always a good meeting and gave me a sense of what was going on more broadly in our sector of higher education.
I distinctly remember a presentation from another Christian University CAO about how they had taken the ideas from this book2 to launch a program prioritization process. It strikes me that they were doing things as well as possible and keeping faculty involved in shared governance.
I don’t know how Wheaton’s process will unfold once they move beyond the low-hanging fruit of Classical Languages. But I can make an informed guess based upon what I’ve seen elsewhere.
Notice that in the announcement, they report that they have added a four-year engineering program. While we can debate the pros and cons of engineering at a four year Christian liberal arts college, the fact that they have added this major BEFORE their Program Prioritization process has begun is telling.
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What else is likely to come out of this process? Based on other institutions who’ve been down this road, it will lead to consolidation of programs in the social sciences (history and political science and sociology collapse into a single department with specializations rather than majors). Skill based components of areas in Math and English will be fine, but the math major might be in jeopardy and upper division lit classes will be few and far between. Philosophy will be downgraded to simply a series of courses with more focus placed on Bible and Theology that serve general education.
Here’s an illustration from my previous institution, even though it didn’t follow the true Program Prioritization process. In about 2013, the eight departments of Sociology, History, Psychology, Religion, Art, Communication, Music, and English had 42 full time faculty members. This fall, those eight departments have half that. Enrollment is down slightly compared to 2013, but not by half. New programs have been added in nursing, engineering, sports medicine, and pre-physical therapy.
Administrators will quickly respond that they are only reacting to what the market is looking for in this era of the coming demographic cliff. That may well be true, but it plays into the shift from Transformational education to Transaction education that I and others have been writing about.
Another subtle shift that follows program prioritization is the diminishment of the liberal arts as foundational to Christian Higher Education.3 What happens when those former areas are diminished? If you look closely, you'll find institutions doubling-down on their claim to support a liberal arts education. But as they do so, they've moved from a content focus (things students should be exposed to) to "critical thinking" (the method of evaluating argument). The latter is theoretically decentralized in all classes, dependent upon individual faculty members to embody what critical thinking looks like.4
It’s hard to push back on Program Prioritization. It makes logical sense. It’s data-driven. It helps the bottom line and creates financially healthy institutions. If you’re a Wheaton faculty member and want to challenge the process, you’ll undoubtedly hear “Well, they did it at Bethel (and Calvin and Gordon and Taylor and Point Loma and who knows how many more).”
Which brings me back (unsurprisingly) to my book project. There is another way. We could position the Christian University not as a market entity but as a counterbalance to the angry voices within Christian America. We could focus on our students as future leaders in society (as our mission statements claim) measured not by their job titles but by the kinds of citizens and church people they become. Doing so will put significantly increased pressure on admissions personnel who will have to know how to describe this value above the first job. It will pressure administrators to evaluate programs based on potential impact and not based upon numbers of majors or graduates. It will require trustees to be able to articulate institutional mission in new ways to a different population of students.5
It’s counterintuitive I know. But after spending four decades in this business, it’s the only way forward that I can have any confidence in.6
In my administrative years, I was always slow to add niche programs for exactly this reason. If the originator got hit by the proverbial bus, we’d be in trouble.
Picture is my copy of the original 1999 version.
When I looked at the 2014 criteria for CCCU membership for my last newsletter, I was surprised to see a screen for how much an institution focused on liberal arts as opposed to pre-professional programs. That, of course, is now gone.
Assuming they aren’t being hounded by students and alums looking for “wokeness” around every corner.
And never to simply say, “why don’t we have that program the school down the road offers?”
Here’s another opportunity for someone to take an interest in my book! I had a good chat this week with an acquisitions editor who was very interested in the topic but recognized it’s a very niche subject. So who’s ready to lose money on an important and necessary book?