Cuts, more cuts, a school’s closure, and another closure

I’ve been traveling for the past week (Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania), so blogging’s been lighter than I would have liked.  Let me catch up a little with this post on a sadly dark theme.

That theme is American campuses wielding axes upon their academic departments.

The organization of this post is in terms of increasing severity.

ax caneITEM: the University of Vermont is laying off adjuncts in the humanities.  The reason?  A new budgeting system based on individual programs’ enrollment.

“incentive-based budgeting” [has] been a boon for growing programs such as business, health sciences, computing and engineering, but not so great for English literature, history and foreign languages. Increasingly, the humanities are losing in the Hunger Games of higher education.

So while total enrollment at UVM has not changed, enrolled students are shifting the classes and majors they take away from the humanities and towards STEM.  “Enrollment is shifting but stable overall”.

The results?  “[D]etractors contend that the model has led to cuts in courses, lecturers and tenured faculty slots”.  More:

Despite a $2 million infusion from the central university coffers, the university plans to “pink-slip” some nontenure-track faculty. Four full-time positions are being cut July 1 in Asian languages and literature; art and art history; classics; and English. Part-time reductions are planned in Romance languages and linguistics, as well as theater.

In total, 11 positions will be cut — the equivalent of five full-time jobs. As many as 14 additional nontenure, full-time equivalent positions will be eliminated over the next five years, according to a February memo from College of Arts and Sciences dean Bill Falls to faculty and staff.

Two trends to pull out here: the declining popularity in the humanities, and the rise of enrollment-based management (which connects to academic program prioritization).  Unless faculty resistance (noted in article) succeeds in blocking this management strategy, and unless student preferences change, how far will these trends reshape Vermont’s flagship public university?

ITEM: the University of Missouri is cutting a series of graduate departments.  In the plans:

Several programs will combine, a new College of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies will work to increase graduate enrollment…  In some instances, while the name will go away, a new combined program will emerge. In the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, masters’ and doctoral programs in rural sociology, agricultural education and agricultural economics will be combined and a single program at each level will be created.

According to Inside Higher Ed, “[t]he programs that will be discontinued entirely are a master’s program in religious studies, the master’s and Ph.D. programs in nuclear engineering, and the nuclear safeguards science and technology graduate certificate.”

There’s a political element to this, as Missouri was the site for controversial and widely covered protests two years ago:

Budget cuts have dominated discussions of spending at MU since the beginning of 2016, when the enrollment crash following the November 2015 campus protests became apparent and then-interim Chancellor Hank Foley ordered 8 percent budget cuts.

Although this might be ending, as “Freshman enrollment is expected to rebound by 500 or more new students in the fall and the budget passed by lawmakers imposes no new cuts.”

I’m struck by the interdisciplinary range of programs to be cut, including the humanities as well as the hard sciences.

ITEM: MissionU will cease offering postsecondary education.  Instead it’s being folded up within WeWork, either to help with its K-12 operations or its coworking services.  No more students will be accepted, despite the offer on the website’s front page.  No word on the fate of staff, other than its founder, Adam Braun, who will take a position within WeWork.

Almost one year ago to this day we hosted MissionU’s founder on the Future Trends Forum:

Some details of this story are hard to discern, but I can offer a few quick thoughts about what it might mean.  First, it’s possible that the WeWork offer was just too tempting to resist, especially if MissionU’s initial enrollment wasn’t looking good.  Second, businesses may not have been interested enough in a one-year undergrad program to support it.  Third, the buy-out may not have been about MissionU at all:

Fourth, notice the language in Braun’s announcement: “WeWork [i]s the company that we believe is building the world’s greatest community of students for life. We’ll be collaboratively integrating our curriculum and technology to reach the full spectrum of ages and interests going forward.”  In other words, Braun is shifting away from traditional-age undergrads to cover all ages in learning.  Again, we don’t have a lot of data, but can infer that this connects with larger trends in enrollment and demographics.

Fifth, as an example of yet another higher ed startup’s failure, this indicates something about that field.  It might be that the field is in rapid churn, that projects have been ill-designed for postsecondary realities, or that higher ed is just much harder to do than some people thought.

ITEM: Marylhurst University will close up shop this fall.  The current class of students will be taught through the fall, then those who don’t graduate will be directed to transfers.  I can’t find details about faculty and staff, but assume they are all hitting the market.  As one put it on Twitter,

What happened?  My readers know to look for enrollment data: “Marylhurst’s enrollment is little more than a third of its recent peak of 1,971 in the 2010-2011 academic year.”  You also know to look hard at the financials: “Marylhurst’s tax returns show that revenues plunged from $21.5 million in 2014 to $15.5 million in 2016 and over the past two years, the university posted combined operating losses of $6 million.”

What does this mean?

On the one hand, we could see in it signs of larger forces acting throughout higher education.  For example, as one official statement put it,

“Like many small, private, liberal arts colleges and universities, we have seen a steady decline in enrollment since the end of the Great Recession,” Marylhurst President Melody Rose wrote…

It is also very small: “a current enrollment of about 750 students evenly split between graduate and undergraduates.”  That connects with arguments about scale – i.e., that the American small college is no longer sustainable in the 21st century.  Inside Higher Ed makes one connection:

Marylhurst shares some things in common with the growing number of small private colleges that have closed or merged in the last year, including shrinking enrollments and a modest endowment ($20.5 million in 2016).

The trustees’ resolution sees their institution as being hit by several other national trends, including religious status and geographu:

WHEREAS many smaller Catholic institutions have seen challenges in attracting students, and students increasingly prefer urban campuses over those in suburban locations or without comprehensive public transit options…

I also note this interestingly future-oriented language from the web announcement:

Unlike other university closures, which have frequently followed a loss of accreditation, mounting debt, recalled loans or bad audits, we are fortunate to have monitored our situation closely so we could make this decision before encountering any of those problems.

How many other institutions’ leadership bodies are looking ahead along these lines?

On the other hand, Marylhurst is an unusual case, as Tim Burke and Audrey Watters note on Twitter.  It is private, religious, and in the liberal arts tradition, yet “Marylhurst specializes helping adult students complete their undergraduate education or get an advanced degree.  The mean age of its undergraduate students is 34.”   Inside Higher Ed reports that “two-thirds of its enrollees attend part time.”

Inside Higher Ed also observes that its geography is unusual:

it isn’t in the Midwest or the Northeast, which are struggling most with declining populations, especially of traditional-age young people. And while Oregon as a whole also faces a declining college-age population, that is most true in the state’s rural regions, whereas Marylhurst sits 10 miles outside Portland, which is booming.

In fact, Marylhurst strikes me as more like a community college in terms of its mission, student population, and response to macroeconomic trends:

Because many of its students are of working age, Marylhurst fortunes have tended to run counter to the economy; i.e. when unemployment is high, people go back to school to complete degrees and get advanced degrees, but when the economy is strong, as it is now, they work full-time.

How many American colleges and universities now have this kind of profile?

All right, that’s enough for one post.  What do these stories tell us about higher ed in 2018?  What signals are they sending about the future of colleges and universities?

(thanks to Scott Robison on Twitter)

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2 Responses to Cuts, more cuts, a school’s closure, and another closure

  1. Here is a parallel story that may or may not shed some insight into the current higher education closures.

    About 20 years ago, the video post-production business serving TV advertising clients in NYC was going like gangbusters (as it had been for decades) but was then decimated in oblivion within 5-7 years for the following reasons:

    1 – The computer technologies that enabled video editors to do multiple tasks (rough cuts, sound editing, color correction, final output mastering, etc.) replaced individual specialists because the results were good enough and LOT less expensive.

    2 – Clients learned that the technologies they were paying a very high price for were not as much “voodoo” as they thought. In a short time, everyone had their own Mac with editing capabilities and all of a sudden everyone was both a producer and editor. The value of creative professionals and the overhead they paid to the boutiques they worked in dropped substantially.

    3 – With the emergence of Web based video as a key marketing domain, less money was being spent on making TV commercials. With this came a shift in the concept of creative output. TV commercials had to be little :30 movies that were finished with immaculate perfection. Web videos could be popular/viral even with the lowest production value. Thus, the value of professional production/post-production talent plummeted. (The ol’ Clayton Christiansen thing where disruption comes from below…)

    4 – Ad agencies realized that they could get the same equipment in-house and save lots of money producing and editing most of their clients’ work on their own. Talent and equipment had become “adjunctified” as a commodity because the Mac Pro computers were easily accessible, the software had gone from $120,000 to $1,500, and there were plenty of desperate freelance video editors who would work for low day rates.

    Sound familiar???

    These factors plus an 8-month Screen Actors Guild/AFTRA strike and the 9-11 attack put nearly every company I knew at that time out of business (and me out on my ass to start a new career).

    What does this all mean for higher education?

    #1 – Anyone who wants to learn can learn without genuflecting to a master campus based gatekeeper who can charge whatever they want for access to instructors. The institution of higher education needs to promote an alternate narrative of the value of a HE experience because customers simply do not need us like they used to.

    #2 – With the advent of the mature online applications for communication, learning, and participation in the community of professional/scholarly practice, what we do in HE is no longer voodoo. Anyone can teach and learn online, build an alumni network, and form a community of practice – and they are.

    #3 – With access to any level of expertise at anytime through open online media, the value of HE instructors as the locus of legitimate knowledge building has been subverted. As David Weinberger says, the smartest person in the room is the room itself. The room, as it is, is no longer on campus.

    Back in this period of disruption, the failure of Association of Independent Commercial Editors (AICE) to advocate for the value of post-production professionals to their clients led to the total dismissal of professional post-production talent and the destruction of the editorial business in NYC.

    We in HE need to figure out what we are good for and determine a sustainable model to provide it to a clientele that will pay for it on their terms – not ours.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a fascinating case study, Steve. It makes a lot of sense, especially as informal learning continues to grow in quantity and usage.

      The voodoo comment caught my eye. Reminds me of how homeschooling has boomed, which casts professional K-12 in some shade.

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