How can a non-profit respond to financial stresses? In non-profit higher education one response is to cut back on services and staff.
When a college or university does this, I call it a “queen sacrifice.” That’s a term from chess, when a player gives up their most powerful piece – the queen – in a desperate move to win the game. On campuses, tenure-track faculty often play this role, given their governance power and the long-term protections tenure provides, compared with adjunct faculty and all staff members.
I’ve been tracking academic queen sacrifices for a long time now; click here for examples.
Today’s instance might come from Virginia’s Marymount University, which just announced a series of program cuts. Programs the board wants to end include, according to Inside Higher Ed, bachelor’s “majors in art, economics, English, history, mathematics, philosophy, secondary education, sociology, and theology and religious studies, and an M.A. in English and humanities.” The Washington Post adds that “A BA program in economics will be eliminated, but the BS in that field will remain.” (The changes haven’t appeared on the university’s majors web page yet.)
The reason cited for this move: low enrollment in those programs. As president Becerra explains, “MU cannot financially sustain offering majors with consistently low enrollment, low graduation rates, and lack of potential for growth.”
Some students and faculty have protested the policy. Many have noted the irony of a religious institution cutting theology and religious studies.
I hesitate to label this a queen sacrifice yet, because nobody’s been fired and no positions ended. In another difference from the usual model, Marymount isn’t citing overall enrollment or financial problems.
So why bring this up at all? It may be that the program closures are all that’s to the story. The majors and grad degrees end, finis.
Yet it’s worth looking closely.
First, notice the nature of the programs. A good chunk are in the humanities, so this can represent a datapoint in the continuing enrollment decline in that field. If we extrapolate a bit, it might represent a shift from campuses offering full humanities programs to just having the humanities as service departments, teaching introductory classes only – i.e., Art Appreciation, Western Civ (for those who still do that), World History I, Introduction to Literature, etc. That’s about one-sixth of all Marymount majors, according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
Also notice the cut to an education program. This might strike some as perverse, given teacher shortages in much of the nation. I’ve seen teacher education programs cut in many queen sacrifices, and think it represents an important story. The field may just be losing its appeal, especially after the pandemic’s stresses. And some may be looking forward to continuing decline in the K-12 student population and not want to risk a career cut short in a decade or two.
Second, while I don’t know Marymount’s board, this may be a case of applied foresight. They may expect enrollment in those fields to keep declining, and hence want to not allocate resources without significant student demand.
Further, they may anticipate a larger problem if their university’s overall enrollment gets hit in the short or medium-term future. Causes for this might be declining traditional-age student religiosity, anxiety or outrage at clerical sex abuse scandals (Marymount is a Catholic institution), growing public skepticism about higher ed, and, notably by Nathan Grawe’s upcoming demographic cliff (circa 2026). Perhaps reducing the number of majors gives the board and senior administration freedom to not replace retirements, or to cut faculty when things get rough.
For a queen sacrifice to occur tenure-track faculty must be fired, and I don’t know enough about Marymount to make an informed guess if that’s in the offing.
That’s the only way to save money, since personnel costs are academia’s biggest. Cutting majors can be a way of preparing the ground for cutting people.
Third point: beyond saving money by eventually cutting and/or not replacing staff, this decision might also allow the university to shift resources to academic programs it considers more likely to enroll more students. That doesn’t have to be done as a crisis strategy, but as part of a growth plan. As statement emailed to a local news outlet put it, “Marymount will reallocate resources from those programs to others that better serve our students and reflect their interests.”
For now, another blow against the humanities and another campus to watch.