What should we let go of?

This is a response that I just submitted to a survey on my campus asking what our university should “let go of” in order to become financially sustainable. While it is very particular to my institution, I thought I would share it out since it may resonate with other folks.

I think we may want to be careful about trimming and cutting. If we do this using an outdated model for conceptualizing how we deliver curriculum, we might back ourselves into a consolidated corner that cuts off our ability to innovate. For example, if we look for “majors” and “programs” to cut, I think we automatically reinscribe a somewhat limiting way of thinking about how students can organize their learning. Yes, we will likely keep traditional majors and minors for a long time, but we probably all agree that they need to be more nimble, more interoperable, designed with an eye toward integration, and certainly way more flexible. If that is the case, I think we want to consider breaking curriculum down into smaller chunks, not to fragment it, but to allow each piece to be combined in more ways than they can currently be combined. When we say “we can’t be all things to all people” or “we try to do too much,” we fall into the trap of thinking that the university has to deliver only large chunked-up programs of study, inflexible and behemoth, and therefore totally reliant on strong market needs to sustain them. I’d suggest we focus more intentionally on low-enrolled courses, on integration across programs, and on developing agile ways of allowing for more learner- and cluster-designed programs to emerge as they are desired. An example: Sculpture has always been a low-enrolled major (as it is at most universities, for many reasons). But so many of its component parts serve other art programs. And more importantly, the Sculpture curriculum can easily be reshaped to develop into a new Maker/Fabrication/Design curriculum, which we see much need for in Interdisciplinary Studies and which would be a good return on our recent Makerspace investment. Cutting sculpture would cut off that possibility, but retooling it to accommodate the new idea would be a double win. If we have only a few Sculpture majors each year, we can find creative ways to allow them to do more independent and hybrid and interdisciplinary work at the upper levels, while focusing our resources on the lower level courses that also feed the Maker major. We may need to think about using more 2 and 1 credit upper level experiences to allow for flexible delivery of lower-enrolled courses (p2p models, independent work, applied work, etc). If we ask faculty to transition by eliminating low-enrolled 3- and 4-credit courses, sharing more content between multiple programs and credentials, and building agile containers that can accommodate shifting fields, then I think the cuts will take care of themselves. In a few cases, cuts would be made to chunks of curriculum that for whatever reason are both low-enrolled AND unable to be disaggregated into useful building blocks. So again, I would focus on asking for building blocks, focusing resources on enrollments (whether that is by market demand or linking compatible smaller pods into integrated courses), thinking creatively about how to deliver smaller curricular chunks without draining faculty resources, and only cutting when the organic process reveals a program or course that is no longer serving.

I think we need a VERY aggressive lead in Academic Affairs to set these priorities and demand action, but this should work for faculty since the action is not about cutting anything, but about focusing resources, creative delivery, integration, interoperability, flexibility. Cutting programs does not save one dime. (Firing faculty does: if you plan to do that, don’t be coy– just retrench and be up front.) What we need to cut if we’re not going to fire faculty is low-enrolled courses, and that will take a significant shift in pedagogy and curriculum delivery. We can’t fix the low-enrollment problem in courses by cutting low-enrolled courses. I should say that again, I believe it so strongly! We have to look at the root of the low enrollments in each area, and target responses in curricular redesign, not in avoidance. It’s not what we should let go of; it’s how to listen more closely to our learners so that we can help the institutional structures keep up with their needs.

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