I find it frustrating to read the many news articles and op-eds around UNCG's academic portfolio review process. On one side the Chancellor, Provost and VCFA are portrayed by themselves, and by their supporters, as warriors for change fighting the faculty enemies who worship the status quo. On the other side are faculty members similarly worried about the fate of UNCG, who don't question change per se, but think both the process to define the change and the outcomes of UNCG's Academic Portfolio Review (APR) will hurt UNCG in the short term, and possibly send the university into a death spiral of cuts, decreased enrollment, more cuts, more decreased enrollment, etc. in the long term. And, these faculty also happen to care deeply about their colleagues who may lose their positions and the important role these colleagues play in what makes UNCG a special place.
The warriors for change say change is needed for five different reasons, depending on the day, but the reasons are not mutually exclusive: 1) Program changes are needed because UNCG has a short-term budget challenge; 2) Program changes are needed to make UNCG competitive against other UNC schools given a demographic decline in the number of students enrolling in universities in North Carolina. This challenge is exacerbated by a recent change in the UNC system budget model that might put more pressure on UNC-CH and NC State to increase their undergraduate enrollment to have enough state appropriation to support their graduate programs; 3) Program changes are needed so that UNCG can invest money from weak academic programs into strong ones; 4) Program changes are needed to address a long term structural budget deficit that relates to what the university calls permanent funds (that are far from permanent these days), tuition and state appropriation vs. ongoing expenses. This model doesn't consider other predictable sources of revenue like F&A reimbursement from grants, revenue from endowments, or reductions in long term expenses that happen every year with faculty/staff turnover. ; and 5) Program changes are needed for UNCG to lay a foundation for the next 10-20 years.
The administration no longer uses the short-term budget problem as their primary talking point. Nevertheless, I find it hard to argue that there are not financial (enrollment) and political headwinds facing the university. One would hope every university has some strategy to be better placed to thrive in an uncertain future. Yet, at UNCG, tactics have been implemented without that strategy.
To me the real question about the program eliminations, the important question, the only question that really matters, is whether there is a match between the APR process and its outcomes to eliminate programs to solving any of the five problems listed above. The faculty colleagues I know do not see: 1) how what seem to us to be almost random elimination of programs will do anything to make UNCG more competitive (we think it will be less); 2) how the outcomes generate enough revenue to truly make strong programs stronger, and besides that, there is no plan/process in place to determine and define strong programs, especially since the APR process included no external review or peer/aspirant peer comparisons; 3) how it generates nearly enough money to reduce the structural budget deficit, let alone to reinvest into other programs, while not also having a significant negative effect on enrollment and reductions in F&A reimbursement; and 4)how cutting the particular academic programs positions UNCG for 10-20 years. Universities that have taken on this kind of large strategic vision beyond 5 years, have done major reorganizations (e.g., Arizona State) over many years in both academic and administrative systems. In UNCG's particular case, suggesting that the results of the APR process of cutting a few programs positions UNCG for 10-20 years is outright stupid, especially given that the data and metrics were based on one cohort of students during COVID (and the data had many other issues from poorly thought out metrics to error prone data).
One telling act pointing to the conversation needing to change is that the Chair of the UNC system faculty assembly and UNCG faculty member told the Chronicle of Higher Education that North Carolina universities that do something similar in the future just won't engage their faculty/staff in the process of academic program cutting or restructuring because of the failure of the process at UNCG.
I don't think back-room decisions are recommended by any change-management best practice. Such practicies would also essentially do away with shared governance with respect to faculty's role for overseeing the quality of the curriculum. Although for some completing a process behind closed doors is expedient, universities are different animals. The major things universities do- teaching and research- are not only performed by faculty, but curricula and courses are designed and assessed by faculty, research, scholarship, and creative activity are the result of faculty expertise, and research quality is also assessed by faculty. Shared governance in academic matters was designed with the recognition that although administrators have fiduciary responsibilities, they don't have the expertise to design and assess curricula, design, and assess courses and learning outcomes, nor design and implement research done by faculty. Oh.. and there are many institutions that worked through/with shared governance to implement significant change.
The Chancellor praises the work that his team did with the Faculty Senate in a recent op-ed in University Business that seems quite disconnected from anything that has happened in reality. For example, he fails to mention that there were five votes, one by the Faculty Assembly of the College of Arts and Sciences and four by the UNCG Faculty Senate (two from the full senate, one from the undergraduate curriculum committee and one from the general educational council) all passing by more than 75% indicating a strong lack of confidence in the process and concerns of negative impacts of process on the academic quality of the university. So, let's be perfectly clear. The majority of faculty senators have made it clear that many faculty do not support the process and certainly did not feel they were adequately engaged.
In the end, the goal for all parties is a better future for UNCG. University leadership needs to communicate so that there is a clear strategy for making change, with clearly articulated tactics. Change for change’s sake is unlikely to strengthen UNCG, and is rather more likely to cause reputational harm and a concomitant decline in enrollment
So, I beg supporters of UNCG's administration in their quest to be nationally recognized as change agents to start asking some profound questions about how the particular APR outcomes will make UNCG stronger for the future. Do not accept vacuous statements the Chancellor has made such as "Through sharpening our focus and reinvesting in our collective work, we set a stronger foundation for students and communities to thrive." Probe the details. The op-ed this Sunday, 2/11/2024, (written by the Chair of the UNCG Board of Trustees (BoT) and three former chairs), basically argued that everybody should just come together and make the best of it. I disagree. There is still time to get things aligned. Leadership has to up their game or move on. Cutting things is relatively easy. Making a university stronger for the future isn't, especially when university leaders either have been unable or unwilling to specifically describe how program cuts will improve UNCG's chances for a bright future.
So, let's stop the narrative that UNCG leaders are the warriors for change fighting the small but loud band of the armies for the status quo. It is time to talk about the real story: UNCG's future. It is also time to acknowledge the failure of academic leadership that led a campus through an APR process costing thousands (and possibly tens of thousands) of faculty and staff person-hours with an outcome that cannot be matched to any realistic or definable strategy other than any change, is good change.
There is still ample time to determine whether amputating program limbs will heal the UNCG patient, and, if not, whether the UNCG community wants to consider new physicians to be responsible for the health of UNCG's academic enterprise.