How might a college or university cope with a financial crisis?
One response is to cut academic programs and the faculty who teach in them, aiming to save on labor costs. For years I’ve been tracking examples of these under the header of “queen sacrifices.” Today I’ll point to two new instances at two different types of institutions more than one thousand miles apart.
(The queen sacrifice term comes from chess and names a desperate move when a player sacrifices their most powerful piece – the queen – to save the game. The imperfect analogy in academia is tenured faculty, who aren’t the kings of their institution in chess terms, but have the powers of tenure and institutional governance. You can find far too many examples of this at the above link.)
First, North Dakota State University‘s president announced the university would start merging its academic colleges, of which there are now seven (“Agriculture, Food Systems and Natural Resources; Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Business; Engineering; Health Professions; Human Sciences and Education; and Science and Mathematics,” according to Inforum.). This is just the start. Next up: “[President] Cook said no immediate cuts to majors or programs are planned, but eventually there will be some.”
And then, potential cuts to faculty and staff:
Cook did not address the question of whether the budget cuts or university reorganization will lead to layoffs.
Cook said cuts to NDSU athletics are possible.
“Everything is on the table,” he said.
What is causing this? My readers will be unsurprised to learn that it’s declining enrollment at the land grant institution:
a decline in student credit hours that form the base of the state funding it receives. The cuts, totaling $10.5 million, will amount to a 5.48% decrease in NDSU’s base funding through 2023-25.
The declines are tied to a drop in NDSU student enrollment, which peaked in 2013-14, then began eroding and fell sharply in 2017-18, a drop that mirrors nationwide college enrollment trends.
This is early in the queen sacrifice process, so specific target programs haven’t been named. Yet the classic logic is already in play, as we learn about departments with low enrollment as potential chops, plus one other aspect:
Low enrollment, high cost programs may be looked at initially, but decisions will be based primarily on the current workforce needs in the state.
“That’s going to be a critical driver in all of this,” Cook said.
Matching degrees to jobs and deemphasizing programs which don’t fit that pattern, in other words. Remember that this is a public, state campus.
Second case: Savannah State University, a historically black university in Georgia, conducted an internal review, which a local journal reported on:
Looking to close an $11 million budget gap ahead of the next academic year, Savannah State University conducted a sweeping internal review that recommends slashing academic programs including English, history and Africana Studies, not renewing the contracts of several non-tenure faculty members and a campus-wide consolidation of academic programs, according to more than 300 pages of internal documents obtained by the Savannah Morning News.
Again we see the queen sacrifice template: financial pressures leading to program cuts which entail staff cuts. One more the money problems stem from declining enrollment:
[T]he university has faced a decade of declining enrollment, which in turn has led to a decline in state funding.
Between 2011 and 2021, enrollment declined 25% at Savannah State. State appropriations to public universities are based on a two-year lag in enrollment data. Savannah State saw its first decline in state funding in FY2020, when appropriations decreased 3% from the previous year to $24.8 million, according to SSU financial reports.
As is often the case, the humanities are overrepresented in the target departments (the fourth unit is environmental science; math will be consolidated into another program). Their respective declining numbers play a key role in this process:
Some of the programs recommended for deactivation graduated two people in 2021, according to documents obtained by SMN.
Between the fall of 2013 and 2022, Africana Studies saw a 45% decline in enrollment, while History saw more than a 90% decrease in students pursuing the degree during that same time frame, according to SSU enrollment figures.
Savannah is recommending lower-enrollment units reach out for more funding, according to: “Dean David Marshall’s recommendation report to the provost, dated Oct. 28, 2022.
“Previous practices in CLASS have contributed to inefficiencies which have resulted in a bloated academic budget. Managing the costs of educational delivery will be key to our long-term success as a unit,” Marshall wrote in his report. “Eventually, as the university emerges from this temporary crisis on the other side of this process, each academic department will have to make a commitment to be efficient with resources and be committed to aggressively going after grants and corporate support.”
There is a process question here. How open and transparent was the review? Did someone leak it to the press?
These aren’t the only two queen sacrifices. Others are in various stages of planning and implementation. As long as financial pressures keep hitting campuses – and my research indicates this is likely – we should expect more.